Pro Se Cases Can Make a Judge a Top Closer

It takes a team to close as many cases in the past year as Chief Judge Loretta Preska of the Southern District of New York has done.

Judge Preska has closed more prisoner petition and civil rights lawsuits than any other judge in the nation in the twelve-month period ending March 31, 2015, according to the latest case-by-case court records compiled and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.

TRAC's analysis of this new data reveals that Judge Preska has closed 707 cases where the nature of suit is listed as "prisoner petition," and 498 where it is listed as "civil rights," topping both categories. Overall, she has closed 1,277 cases of all types for the year ending March 31, 2015, the sixth most among the nation's district court judges.

Judge Preska said her numbers are influenced by two factors: the large number of pro se cases filed in the Southern District, and the unique way the district handles those cases, employing a team of lawyers to evaluate the cases before assigning them to a judge. Pro se cases are cases in which plaintiffs represent themselves. They are often filed by prisoners, and are generally listed as either prisoner petition or civil rights cases.

When cases are filed with a district court, they are generally assigned randomly to one of the judges in the district. However, in an unusual procedure in the Southern District of New York, pro se cases are first reviewed by the Office of Pro Se Litigation. In New York South, that office is staffed with a team of nine lawyers that review the case as part of a "merit screening" process, according to Margaret Malloy, Chief Counsel to Office of Pro Se Litigation in the Southern District.

If those lawyers find that the complaint has been filed properly, the case enters the random assignment pool. But if not, the lawyers from the Office of Pro Se Litigation draft orders that the suit be amended or dismissed, and then send the case to Judge Preska, who decides whether the recommended order is proper. Since many of these cases are ultimately dismissed, Judge Preska gets credited with a high number of closures.

Malloy said the Southern District, which stretches from Manhattan northward to the southern Catskill Mountains, gets these cases from a variety of state and federal facilities located in the northern reaches of the district, but that the majority of them come from New York City's notorious Rikers Island.

Both Malloy and Judge Preska thought their district was somewhat unique in sending all pro se cases deemed deficient to the chief judge of that district. Judge Preska said she inherited the practice when she took over as chief judge of the district in 2009 and is not sure when it started. Both thought the practice might be beneficial to other districts that receive a large volume of pro se cases.

Other Top Closers

Below is a look at the other top closers in the nation by nature of suit. Judge David R. Herndon of the Southern District of Illinois, based in East St. Louis, closed the largest number of cases during this twelve-month period — 7,763. That number, as well as some others on the list, is influenced by multidistrict litigations (MDLs). MDLs contain a large number of similar suits that have been bundled together so that a single judge can resolve the common legal and factual questions shared by each case.

Judge Herndon, for instance, is hearing two MDL cases, including one — involving nearly 15,000 cases — that centers on the marketing of the drug drospirenone, a synthetic hormone used in birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy. MDLs are often large, complex litigations. But once the underlying issues in the MDL are decided, a judge can often close large numbers of the individual cases far faster than you would expect if each case were being decided separately.

The most closures by a senior judge — judges who retire but continue to hear cases — was 1,687 by Judge Eduardo C. Robreno in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. This is over six times the typical number of civil closures for a regular full-time judge during this same period. Judge Robreno is handling the large asbestos products liability MDL; closures from this MDL contributed to his unusually high number of closed cases during the twelve-month period.

Table 1. Most Closed Civil Cases by Nature of Suit for One-year Period Ending March 31, 2015
Category Judge District Closures
Most closed cases overall David R. Herndon Illinois South 7,763
Most closures by a senior judge Eduardo C. Robreno Pennsylvania East 1,687
Most closures by nature of suit  
Bankruptcy Jed S. Rakoff N.Y. South 876
Civil Rights Loretta A. Preska N.Y. South 498
Contract Micaela Alvarez Texas South 183
Forfeiture/Penalty Terrence W. Boyle N. Carolina East 171
Immigration Clay D. Land Georgia Middle 41
Labor Cecilia M. Altonaga Florida South 104
Prisoner Petitions Loretta A. Preska N.Y. South 707
Property Rights James R. Gilstrap Texas East 962
Real Property John J. McConnell Jr. Rhode Island 528
Social Security Donetta W. Ambrose Penn. West 120
Tax Suits James E. Kinkeade Texas North 14
Personal Injury - Product Liability David R. Herndon Illinois South 7,434
Personal Injury - Other Robert C. Chambers W. Virginia South 2,197
Personal Property Torts Mark W. Bennett Iowa North 92
Other Statues William D. Keller* California Central 219
*Judge Keller has closed several cases in with the nature of suit listed as Cable/Satellite TV.

TRAC data on the workloads of federal judges are part of TRAC's Judge Information Center. TRAC compiles, verifies, and publishes information on the workloads of federal district court judges. The Center includes TRAC's free Civil Caseload Tool that provides rankings for nearly every federal district court judge in the country — by the number of civil cases pending at the time of the last update, the number closed in the year prior to the last update, and the number of defendants sentenced in the past five years. The Judge Information Center also provides information on criminal caseloads and Immigration Court judges.

In addition to the free caseload data, a subscription to the Center provides access to custom reports on each judge, showing in greater detail the composition of the judge's caseload, the time on average it takes to close cases, how those closing times compare to other judges in the district, and a detailed look at the cases the judge took the longest to close.

TRAC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit data research center affiliated with the Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Whitman School of Management, both at Syracuse University. For more information, to subscribe, or to donate, contact or call 315-443-3563.