Colorado Trial Courts Denied Authority To Modify Certain Case Management Requirements

With the increasing costs of litigation, many businesses were interested in the Colorado Supreme Court’s ruling in Antero Resources Corp. v. Strudley, 2015 CO 26 (Colo. April 20, 2015). The case addressed whether Colorado trial courts are permitted to change case management requirements to require plaintiffs to produce evidence essential to their claims before discovery. Some courts have used such orders to reduce the burden and expense faced by defendants. The Colorado Supreme Court, however, concluded Colorado trial courts do not have such authority and that such orders are not permitted.

The case began with the Strudley family suing Antero Resources claiming they suffered burning eyes and throats, rashes, headaches, nausea, coughing, and bloody noses because of contamination of the air, ground, and water around their home, which they claimed resulted from Antero Resources’ natural gas drilling operation. After both parties exchanged initial disclosures, the trial court issued a Lone Pine order requiring the Strudleys to present prima facie evidence to support their claims before discovery. When the Strudleys failed to present sufficient evidence, the trial court dismissed their claim with prejudice.

The Colorado Supreme Court addressed the Strudleys’ claim that dismissal was improper.  It began by comparing Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16, which allows Lone Pine orders, with Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 16, to determine if the trial court exceeded its authority by issuing the Lone Pine order. The Supreme Court examined the language in the two rules and decided they were markedly different. When Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 16 was revised in 2002, Colorado did not include the explicit language found in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16(c)(2)(L), which authorizes trial courts to adopt “special procedures for managing potentially difficult or protracted actions that may involve complex issues, multiple parties, difficult legal questions, or unusual proof problems.” In addition, the language in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16(c)(2)(A) giving trial courts authority to simplify issues or eliminate frivolous claims was not included in the Colorado rule. The Supreme Court explained that, while it does promote “active judicial case management, the [Colorado] rule does not provide a trial court with authority to fashion its own summary judgment-like filter and dismiss claims during the early stages of litigation.”  Strudley at ¶ 13.

Colorado Supreme Court Justice Boatright, dissenting, argued that the modified case management order in Strudley was expressly authorized by Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 16.  For example, Rule 16(c) states that any provision from Rule 16(b), which includes rules for discovery, “may be modified by the entry of a Modified Case Management Order.”  Justice Boatright argued this provision gives a trial court the authority to adjust the timelines for disclosures and discovery.  According to the dissent, because the Lone Pine order requested only information (1) the Strudleys already had in their possession and control, and (2) they would have had to produce anyway to make their case, the modified case management order simply accelerated the timeline for disclosure.

To the disappointment of many Colorado companies hoping to reduce future litigation expenses by requiring plaintiffs to provide basic evidence supporting their claims before full discovery commences, in essence streamlining and reducing claims early in litigation, the recent Strudley opinion concludes that trial courts in Colorado do not have the authority or flexibility to modify or manage case management requirements in such a manner absent explicit authorization in the rules.