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Class Action Countermeasures Discussions of the Strategic Considerations Involved In Class Action Defense

Time and Complex Litigation – Why Do Plaintiffs Hate Delays So Much?

Posted in Strategy

There is a common perception in complex litigation (not to mention litigation generally) that time favors the defendant. Defendants often counsel clients not to react too quickly: situations that may provoke a fight-or-flight response in the moment often present more strategic opportunities as they unfold. And plaintiffs tend to agree; they often complain that defendants’ primary strategy is just to delay litigation for as long as possible.

But is there any basis for this assumption? After all, there are definite cases–like the motion to strike class allegations, or when plaintiffs try to change their theory late in the litigation–where defendants prefer to move faster than plaintiffs to resolve outstanding issues. So why is it that we all assume that plaintiffs want to rush while defendants want to wait?

One of the largest reasons that we assume that plaintiffs want to proceed faster than defendants is because of what economists call the time discount factor. All other things being equal, people value a gain now more than an equal gain in the future. This works in reverse, too. Most people would prefer a loss in the future more than the same loss today. (So you can see why, from the beginning, plaintiffs push for quick trials–they want their payments now, while defendants don’t mind putting off losses from litigation.)

In 2007, Rutgers political science professor Jack S. Levy and PhD candidate Phillip Streich looked over the economic literature on time discounting. And what they found was that the classic account of time discounting actually understates how people treat decisions over time. As they wrote in their article Time Horizons, Discounting, and Intertemporal Choice:

The accumulation of experimental research on intertemporal choice has made it increasingly clear that the exponential discounting model that Samuelson (1937) pioneered nearly seventy years ago, which has subsequently dominated economics and economic applications in political science, does not provide a descriptively accurate model of how most people actually behave in making choices over time. Instead of discounting by a constant rate from one period to the next, people tend to discount relatively more heavily the near-term future and to discount relatively less heavily the more distant future, compared to constant-rate exponential discounting. In addition, discounting is not independent of the value of future out- comes. People have greater discount rates for less valuable outcomes than they do more valuable outcomes, and they have greater discount rates for gains than for losses. This asymmetry of losses and gains, so familiar to students of prospect theory, carries over into other manifestations of reference dependence and framing: the anticipated loss of utility of having to wait longer than expected for a future reward is greater than the anticipated gain in utility from receiving a future reward sooner than expected.

(Emphases aded.) All of these phenomena together contribute to what economists call hyperbolic discounting.  These two phenomena (sometimes called the gain-loss asymmetry and the delay-speedup asymmetry) add to the explanation of why defendants appear to prefer delay: plaintiffs value the gains they might receive less the further away they appear, and the mere fact of delay feels like a loss to them. By contrast, the defendant still anticipates that any anticipated loss will close to the amount it hurts today, and it experiences comparatively less gain from the day.

So what does this mean in complex litigation? It means that plaintiffs are in fact likelier to push hard to resolve matters quickly, even when there are sound reasons for proceeding deliberately. And that means that any attempts to slow the litigation to a manageable pace will lead to vigorous protest and strong rhetoric about "delay tactics." This may not be mere rhetoric on the part of cynical counsel; it may represent genuine frustration.

It also means that defendants have some leverage in negotiating how the litigation will proceed. Remember, all else being equal, delays are more immediately painful to plaintiffs than they are immediately helpful to defendants. So, when defendants need important concessions in other areas of the litigation (perhaps in the scope of discovery), they may be able to trade less-valuable (to them) scheduling concessions.