On November 1, 2017, Arizona’s Pima County Superior Court launched a three-year pilot program known as the Fast Trial and Alternative Resolution Program (FASTAR), which significantly impacts the court’s compulsory arbitration system.

Background

In December 2015, the Arizona Supreme Court established the Committee on Civil Justice Reform (CCJR). The Court tasked the CCJR with developing recommendations, including rule amendments or pilot programs, to reduce the cost and time required to resolve civil cases in Arizona’s superior courts. The Court instructed the CCJR to review:

  • The report and recommendations of the Conference of Chief Justices’ Civil Justice Initiative
  • The reports and recommendations of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, particularly its Rule 1 Initiative and 2015 Committee on Civil Justice Reform Report
  • The December 2015 amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Following its formation, the CCJR met several times throughout 2016 to discuss how best to reduce the cost and time required to resolve civil cases. The CCJR spent much time and attention examining Arizona’s current compulsory arbitration system, and concluded that although the current system resolves smaller disputes less expensively and is effective in relieving the backlog of civil cases on courts’ dockets, the system, surprisingly, did not necessarily resolve lawsuits quicker than full-fledged civil litigation. The CCJR also noted the current compulsory arbitration system had the practical effect of depriving parties of their right to a jury trial. Additionally, some CCJR members voiced concerns about the diminishing rate of civil jury trials. These members argued attorneys’ lack of jury trial experience made litigation more time-consuming and costly because they needed to spend time on issues that were not critical to disposing the case.

The CCJR considered several proposals to address these issues, including whether:

  • The current compulsory arbitration system should be replaced
  • There should be a combination of arbitration and fast-track trials
  • Arbitrators should be assigned based on subject-matter experience
  • A plaintiff should be required to waive his or her right to a jury trial if he or she elected to proceed with compulsory arbitration
  • There should be a pilot program to test proposals.

In May 2016, the CCJR proposed the implementation of a pilot program to address these concerns. Under the proposal, a plaintiff seeking only monetary damages between $1,000 and $50,000 would have the right to opt into either a short trial or compulsory arbitration. The proposal was unanimously approved. The CCJR subsequently selected Pima County for the pilot program rather than Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, because the county was large enough to produce a sufficient sample size for analyzing data, but not so large that it would negatively affect the existing financial and operational infrastructure of the county’s courts. The pilot program was subsequently named the Fast Trial and Alternative Resolution Program (FASTAR).

How FASTAR Works

According to the Pima County Superior Court, the purpose of the FASTAR program is to resolve less complicated civil claims as quickly, efficiently and fairly as possible. FASTAR applies to new civil actions that meet the following criteria:

  • The plaintiff only requests monetary damages
  • The amount of money sought by the plaintiff is between $1,000 and $50,000
  • The summons and complaint do not require service in a foreign country.

Under FASTAR, the plaintiff has the choice of proceeding either by Fast Trial or by Alternative Resolution and the defendant is bound by this choice. The choice must be made within 20 days from the first responsive pleading filed by a defendant. If the plaintiff does not timely file a “choice certificate,” the case is automatically assigned to the Fast Trial track.

Fast Trial Under the Fast Trial track, a trial is set between 190 and 270 days from the date the complaint is filed. The parties must exchange their Rule 26.1 disclosure statements within 20 days of the first filed answer. All discovery must be completed within 120 days of the first answer, and no later than 190 days after the complaint’s filing date, whichever is sooner.

Use of traditional discovery tools is restricted under the Fast Trial track. Each side is limited to 5 interrogatories, 5 requests for production, 10 requests for admissions, and only 1 physical or mental examination. Each side is entitled to a total number of fact witness deposition hours equal to the number of witnesses that a party is entitled to depose under Rule 30(a)(1) multiplied by 2 hours. Expert and treating physician depositions are limited to 1 hour for each party.

Summary judgment motions must be filed at least 60 days before the trial date. Parties must file (1) a response within 15 days after service of the motion and (2) a reply within 5 days of service of the response.

Trials are held in Superior Court before a judge or six-person jury and last no more than 2 days. The trial is subject to a cap of 3 hours per side for presenting a case in chief, including cross-examination and rebuttal. Neither party is permitted to use Rule 68 offers of judgment before the trial.

Alternative Resolution

The Alternative Resolution track is designed to operate similarly to the compulsory arbitration process, subject to a few changes. According to an article in the Arizona Law Review, the most notable and controversial change is that the plaintiff waives any right to challenge the arbitration proceedings, the award and any judgment entered on the award. The defendant is not bound by the arbitrator’s decision and retains the right to appeal the decision.

Takeaways

FASTAR is a significant departure from how civil claims were previously resolved in Pima County. Plaintiffs now determine whether less complex civil cases head to arbitration or trial. Given the Alternative Resolution track’s waiver rules, plaintiffs may instead opt for the Fast Trial track. When the Fast Trial track is selected, parties will need to develop their case efficiently with the expectation their case will go to trial. Given this time-sensitive environment, it is vital clients and those litigating in Pima County retain counsel early to safeguard their interests and to help position them to achieve a favorable result.