Preliminary Investigation: Searching federal court files

The Law, wherein, as in a magic mirror, we see reflected not only our own lives, but the lives of all men that have been! When I think on this majestic theme, my eyes dazzle. – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Whether you’re going to sue individuals or a company, it’s useful to dazzle your eyes with an unusual look into the enemy.

In this light I once helped out Miss Midgie Muldoon, who was pretty sure she had a wrongful termination lawsuit against her ex-employer.

Entering our federal court system data base, I searched Miss Midgie’s district court for lawsuits in which her erstwhile employer was a defendant. I found a few cases that compared to hers.

From these lawsuits I also collected the names of lawyers who had successfully sued the same employer, to offer Miss Midgie a small, local lawyer reference list. So by the time she was ready to hire a lawyer, Miss Midgie knew with certainty that she had not been the only person treated badly by her employer and that other employees had received settlements for their similar lawsuits.

There are numbers of court systems in the United States—federal, state, county, municipal. We’ll start with the feds and work our way down.

Federal court system.

  1. Register for access to the federal court system electronic data base, called “Pacer,” at http://pacer.psc.uscourts.gov. On the home page, click on “register” on the top bar. The instructions, with links, appear. Click on “pacer registration form.” Fill out the form. (It will ask you for a credit card number. They will charge your account on a quarterly basis $.08 for each page you print out. Pennies, literally.)
  2. Scribble the pacer address, along with the login and password information pacer gives you, into your Case List.
  3. At the pacer home page, run your cursor over the “U.S. Party Case Index” on the top bar and click on “login.” After you feed in your ID information and password, you’ll reach the main data base page.
  4. Click on the left “Search” box for the type of case you’re interested in from this list: all court types, appellate, bankruptcy, civil, criminal. (You’ll probably want civil although if might be fun to check criminal, too. I mean, who knows?)
  5. Now you’ve reached the main search page. In the top box, “region,” open the menu. You’ll see a long list of federal courts. The top of the list contains all the circuit courts.  They are the court level higher than the district courts; they decide appeals from cases in the lower courts.
  6. Beneath the circuit court list, you’ll find an alphabetical listing of all district courts by state. If you don’t know what district the court you’re looking for is in, back up to the “pacer service center” page, click on “links,” and then “maps.” You’ll find a map of the entire United States; if you roll your cursor over the map and stop in the area of the state in which you’re searching, the name of the correct district court will appear, i.e., Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Northern District of New York, etc.
  7. Search for cases in the district court where the person or where the company you’re thinking of suing is based. But if you know where a person lived previously, gather the information for that district court, as well. Maybe this person who harasses you harassed someone in his/her previous position, in another state.
  8. For a company, you’ll want the company headquarters. Select that district court. Put in the “party name” in the designated box. If it’s a company, try various versions of the name, keeping it as short as possible. That is, instead of putting in, say, “American Association of Retired Persons,” try just AARP.
  9. If you get a hit, you’ll reach a page with the name you put in and the case number, or numbers, if there are a number of cases where that name appears as a defendant or plaintiff. Click on the most recent. You’ll get a screen with a list of possibilities: case summary, docket sheet, documents/history, etc.
  10. If you click on the docket sheet, you’ll get a columnar list of all the events in the case. If the case is current or fairly recent, you should have a column next to the event with a number, hyperlinked in blue. By clicking on these numbers, you can get into all the unsealed documents in the case.

At the least, read the complaint and the last (dated) document to see if the case settled. If there is a settlement agreement, very likely it will be sealed. (Nobody who settles a lawsuit wants it to be known how much he paid, since it’s an admission of wrongdoing and will encourage even further lawsuits. But if it’s sealed, you know the plaintiff won.)

All utterly legal and snoopily enjoyable; it’s like watching any of the Law & Orders, although not as well written. Warning:insofar as you’re getting involved with the lives of these people, you might get hooked; watch out for signs of addiction.

At some point, take out your LAWSUIT/LAWYERS folder and pull out any federal cases you’ve clipped. Search for these cases. You were interested in news about them; now you can read the actual lawsuit. If you like the case and it’s in your (federal) district, copy out the plaintiff’s lawyer’s name and contact information.

Put everything you print out into your LAWSUIT/LAWYERS folder and reserve, as they say about sautéed onions, for the next chapter.

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