New Attorney Sanctions Analytics Reveals Litigation Risks

Being on the receiving end of a motion for sanctions is among any lawyer’s most-dreaded scenarios. If a sanctions motion is granted: even worse. How can judicial analytics inform the likelihood of this nightmare scenario? In which case types are sanctions motions more common? How long do these motions typically take to resolve?

A Docket Alarm sample of over 2,000 sanctions motions in federal courts revealed 58% of the motions for sanctions are rejected outright, 29% are granted, and 18% are granted partially. 

But of course, that’s for the entire universe of federal-court sanctions motions; the better data-science questions are usually the second, third, and fourth questions — as you move down the “But what about…” rabbit hole.

  • What about in this jurisdiction?
  • What about for this judge?
  • What about for these case types?
  • What about this judge for these case types?

Grant rates for sanctions motions are remarkably consistent across case types. For example, sanctions for several case types — including civil rights, trademark, insurance, and contract cases — have grant rates of consistently between 25% and 35%.

But in a few exceptions, sanctions are much rarer. For example, parties bring sanctions motions more frequently in cases with prison-rights and prison-conditions claims. But in those cases, judges are more likely to issue outright denials: at a rate of about 75%. This increased denial rate might be correlated to these cases’ prevalence of pro se plaintiffs; most of the denied motions are being filed by plaintiffs who are pro se

Other case types do not have such high sanction-motion-denial rates. In this sample, trademark cases had the highest grant rate, and non-prisons cases saw sanction-denial rates of between 40% and 60%. 

Another key question when it comes to any motion — and particularly motions for sanctions — is this: How will it take for the court to decide? Docket Alarm reports that the period between motion and decision lasts an average of 95 days, with half of the cases resolve in between 28 and 159 days. The distribution, as displayed below, is multimodal — with three noteworthy spikes.

The first spike are motions for sanction that are ruled on within ten days. Manual review reveals that these quick-decision motions are often either (1) rejected outright or (2) denied as moot. Many are denials, but this trend is not absolute. Judges can also quickly grant motions for sanctions, depending on the facts and alleged misconduct. 

Another decision spike occurs about a month after filing, and a third smaller (but noticeable) spike occurs at the six-month mark. Because sanctions motions are so fact-sensitive, broad trends are difficult to discern, but motions decided in these timeframes include discovery issues and frivolous litigation claims, based on a review of motion documents. 

Parsing data from this 600-million document dataset, a data-driven lawyer can obtain objective data to prove (or disprove) lawyers’ otherwise subjective insights. To support propositions, lawyers demand evidence (i.e., data). In the case of sanctions motions, lawyers’ intuitive insight that “Quick decisions are easy” are borne out in the data. The 2,000-case sample discussed above reveals that courts quickly resolve motions that are clear-cut. And for those motions that are more factually complex, decisions take longer. 

Something that data cannot (yet) quantify: How a lawyer on the receiving end of a sanction motions feels upon reading the court’s sanctions ruling.