The Benefits of a Rule 53 Special Master

 In Blog, Litigation and Dispute Resolution

Many federal district courts contend with large case volumes that tax both time and resources. Nashville has seen significant growth over the last decade – growth that has not been met with a proportional expansion of the federal judicial apparatus. The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee has only four district judges and three magistrate judges, reflecting no growth over that time. Indeed, the court has lost judges due to retirements.

Managing discovery in complex, contentious civil litigation and moving cases forward are just two of a federal district judge’s many responsibilities. Crowded dockets of pending cases that need the judge’s focus and attention during the lengthy and involved pre-trial stage of proceedings make effectively meeting those obligations a challenge, particularly when criminal matters must take priority over civil disputes. District judges often delegate case management to magistrate judges, but with only three in the District, they also find themselves pulled in many directions.

That is why federal rules permit courts to appoint a “special master” to assume many pre-trial responsibilities. It is a significant role, as the court empowers a special master to issue orders regarding all matters within the scope of their appointment, particularly complex discovery disputes. Special masters can compel compliance with discovery requests and are often empowered to order sanctions against non-compliant parties.

The Role and Responsibilities of a Special Master in Federal Litigation

The role of a special master can vary depending on the specific circumstances of the case. Generally, a judge appoints a special master to perform certain functions, including:

  • Managing Discovery and Discovery Disputes

In cases where the parties request and exchange a significant volume of documents, managing the production of that material – and resolving disputes regarding the material – can be a time-consuming and involved task. This can also be true of cases with significant quantities of eDiscovery. Special masters are often appointed to assist litigants with the discovery process, make rulings on the scope of permissible requests, and issue orders addressing discovery disputes.

  • Fact-Finding

Federal judges know the law, but every case presents a unique set of facts. In complex, fact-intensive cases, judges may not have the capacity to conduct a thorough review of the record and determine the facts to which it must apply the law. Similarly, the court may benefit from the expertise of a special master when confronting issues or disputes involving highly technical or scientific subject matter. In these cases, they may appoint a special master to do a deep dive into the record and make informed findings of fact that become recommendations for the judge.

  • Compliance Monitoring

A special master may be appointed to monitor compliance with court orders or settlement agreements. This can be especially useful in cases where the parties have a history of noncompliance or need ongoing oversight.

Though an added expense to the parties (Rule 53(g)(3) authorizes the court to allocate payment for the special master’s services among the parties), the appointment of a special master is a powerful option for avoiding the stagnation of civil cases in an overburdened federal court.


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