In this post, we are going to discuss how to search court records, specifically relating to civil lawsuits.
(If you are interested in reading more about how to conduct a criminal background check like an expert, check out our previous post.)
I consider court records one of the most important and underutilized resources in an investigator’s arsenal. They are open source (anyone can access them), they are based on factual data, they can provide an intimate picture of an individual or a business and there are millions of data points (millions of cases are filed each year).
As recently as 15 years ago, the only way to search court records was by physically going to each court and searching the records either on a computer terminal or in bound books. Since the late 1990s, however, records have been computerized with increasing regularity, and the individual courts are putting their records on the Internet.
This is not true for every court, unfortunately. Many courts (probably most courts) in the United States cannot be publicly accessed on the Internet and, in some cases, still require a trip down to the court (yes, this is 2019).
This post is meant to give you a broad overview of how to do court research, but there are hundreds of exceptions here. With more than 4,000 state, local and federal courts in the United States, it’s just not possible to cover everything.
Before we get into the meat of the post, let’s discuss some general terms about what a civil lawsuit is, types of cases that are filed and some general terminology.
What Is a Civil Lawsuit?
In general terms, a civil lawsuit is a case in which an individual or a business files a dispute against another individual or business, seeking some form of damages or compensation.
Some common types of civil lawsuits are related to marital matters, personal injuries, contract disputes, discrimination, copyright infringement, medical malpractice, and evictions or unpaid rent, all of which are handled by the civil courts.
There are a number of specialized courts as well, such as the U.S. Tax Court, the U.S. Court of Claims and the U.S. Court of International Trade, which are separate entities and have their own rules regarding access.
As noted above, finding criminal cases, although similar, is a whole different ball of wax.
State Courts versus Federal Courts
There are two different kinds of courts in the United States — state courts and federal courts. In the most basic terms, federal courts handle cases involving a violation of federal laws (e.g., discrimination, copyright), the Constitution, cases involving the United States as a party or cases involving citizens of different states.
State courts involve cases concerning state or local laws. The most common cases are marital cases, personal injury cases or contract disputes.
For the most part, civil court cases are filed in the county or jurisdiction in which a person lives, works or conducts business (in the case of corporations).
It’s critical to understand which jurisdictions (specifically the counties) are relevant before you get started. If a person has lived and worked in Westchester County, New York, you need to make sure that you are searching state-level lawsuits in Westchester and federal-level lawsuits in New York.
While most cases are filed in the county or jurisdiction in which the plaintiff lived, worked or conducted business, there are always exceptions. For example, a person may be involved in a vehicle accident in a county neighboring where he or she always has lived. In large suburban areas like New York City, many people live outside the city in which they work.
In some instances, the case may be filed in the state in which a business was incorporated. For example, many large corporations are incorporated in tax-friendly states such as Delaware or Nevada; even if they do not conduct business in that particular state, a case may still be filed there.
Overview of State/County/Local Courts
Most state-level courts are split up by county. There is usually one “main” court in the county (typically called the Supreme, District, Circuit or Superior Court), with various smaller courts. In most instances, this main court will handle the more-significant cases, such as lawsuits involving more than $5,000.
If you are interested in being very thorough, you will need to make sure you cover both the main court and the smaller, outlying courts. In most cases, the smaller courts handle less-significant matters, such as small claims and eviction cases, which may not be all that relevant to what you are doing.
In many states, there are separate courts that handle matters such as family issues (e.g., divorce and child custody) as well as courts that handle probate matters such as wills and estates. In most cases, this requires a separate search because these courts are usually not directly wired to each other.
In summary, each county typically has one main court that handles the most-significant cases and many smaller courts for less-significant matters in terms of damages or other matters altogether.
Overview of Federal Courts
Federal courts are a little less complicated. In total, there are 94 U.S. district courts. Some states, such as Alaska, have a single judicial district, while others, such as California, have multiple judicial districts.
There are also appeals courts, where an unsuccessful party can file an appeal to have the decision reviewed. For the purposes of this post, we are discussing only originating cases, not cases on appeal.
How to Search Court Records
So now that you have a better understanding of the state and federal court systems, how do you go about searching court records?
Before conducting your search, there are few things you should keep in mind.
There is no central database.
There is no central database for searching all the courts. Despite the “millions” of records that you might find on some online site, I can assure you that they are neither complete nor comprehensive.
Databases can be quirky.
Searching databases can be quirky, so make sure you follow the directions. For example, in some instances, the full name and correct spelling are mandatory, while other databases will return names with similar spellings. Also, names may be misspelled or entered incorrectly, so be very wary of that.
In addition, some databases require you to enter a date range to search by, some have a preset date range and some will automatically search as far back as their records go. It is important to understand the scope of each online search. Sometimes a phone call to the court is necessary to confirm the scope of records available in the online database.
Last, many databases can be searched by plaintiff (the party filing the lawsuit) or defendant (the party who is being sued); make sure you search both.
Official repositories are always best.
If you are deciding which database to use, the “official repository” is always the best. Official repositories include state and federal government repositories where you can access information directly through the source — for example, PACER, the Cook County Circuit Court or the Palm Beach County Court.
The benefit, of course, is that you are using an official repository that is run by the state or federal government. It is important to remember that these repositories are only as good as the information they contain.
Of course… there are always exceptions.
The biggest exception is right here in my home state of New York. I’ve heard that many people use some combination of ecourts, SCROLL (Supreme Court Records On-Line Library) and NYSCEF – New York State Courts Electronic Filing as their only source for New York civil lawsuits.
I can tell you with 100% certainty that all three of those sites are totally incomplete. Take my word for it.
Use multiple sources.
It is always recommended that you use multiple sources for searching records, even if you are using the “official” repository. After using one database, always try another — and don’t be surprised when you find different results.
Numerous times throughout my career, I have found records in one database and not another. Even “official” county-sanctioned databases have their issues.
The other nice thing about multiple sources is that you may be able to use more powerful searching capabilities. For example, PACER allows you to search only by first name and last name, while Bloomberg Law, LexisNexis and Westlaw allow you to search under name variations and allow you to search individual documents or docket sheets for references to someone’s name.
Civil cases don’t have identifying information.
Unlike criminal cases, which typically list some type of identifying information such as a date of birth or a middle name, civil cases do not. So, if you find a case filed against John Smith, it could be one of hundreds of John Smiths. While in some cases you may be able to determine within the court documents that the case is related to a specific person, the truth is that you may never know whether the case is related to that person.
That’s for another blog post, though.
Sources to Find State-Level Civil Cases
For many counties, you can access the court records through the web. More often than not, those court records cover only the highest court in the county and not the smaller courts, but each county is different. Also, the depth of the information varies. Connecticut’s case lookup displays records for only 10 years, but at the local court, you can get records beyond that. (Insider tip: Court PC of Connecticut has been collecting records since the 1980s and is a fantastic source for historical records in Connecticut.)
There are thousands of local retrievers throughout the country who can search the local courts in person. They are a great source of information, too, as they know the ins and outs of their local court system. You can find a local retriever through the Public Record Retriever Network.
Third-party database aggregators
There are a number of third-party commercial database aggregators that have been collecting civil court case information for years, including LexisNexis, Westlaw, Bloomberg Law and CourtLink (which is owned by LexisNexis).
There are other third-party databases that collect information from a particular jurisdiction, such as Court PC of Connecticut , which collects Connecticut court records, and CourtTrax, which collects records from Washington and a number of other Western states.
Call the court
As a last resort, you can call the court directly (yes, using a telephone). In many small counties, you can actually call the court and they will do a search for you while you are on the phone. Or in some instances, they will ask you to submit a request by snail mail (yes, using the post office). Just a few weeks back, I spoke to a clerk in Hall County, Utah, who was able to look up a case for me while we were on the phone and email me the records.
Please don’t try calling the New York County Supreme Court, though; they will probably laugh in your face.
Or if you do call, don’t mention my name! ;-)
Sources to Find Federal-Level Civil Cases
PACER is a national locator index for federal district courts. The site is maintained by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and is updated daily. You can search by party name, case number or nature of suit. You can search the entire database (nationwide), or you can search by a specific region or state.
Why is this recommended?
As described above, over the years, I have found many instances where cases showed up in one database and not in another for no explicable reason whatsoever. And for reasons that I cannot really explain, PACER has taken it upon themselves to remove loads of historical information.
I hope you have found this a useful guide on how to search court records. With over 17 million cases filed per year, that’s a lot of information to go through, but I hope that you now have a better sense as to how to find them.
Of course, if you have any questions or feedback, feel free to leave a comment below.