fbpx

Posts

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 comparison purposes, about 271,000 federal court cases are filed per year, compared with more than 16,000,000 cases filed in state courts per year.

Jurisdiction

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


Online

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.)

Local retriever

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

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.

Third-party database

Just like the state-level lawsuits, there are third-party commercial databases that also collect information on federal court cases, including LexisNexis, Westlaw and CourtLink.

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.

Summary

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.

References

The Differences between Federal, State, and Local Laws

Federal vs. State Courts – Key Differences

Court Statistics Project

USCourts.gov

National Center for State Courts

Enjoyed What You Read?

Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date with what Hal Humphreys, from Pursuit Magazine, believes to be one of the absolute best blogs in the investigative industry!

There are many things to consider when a law firm is hiring a private investigator.

Below is a guide to some best practices.

Licensed and Insured

There has been a troubling trend of unlicensed private investigators, so the first thing that a law firm should do is confirm licensing status with the local regulatory body.

In the United States, 43 of the 50 states have statewide licensing requirements for private investigators/private detectives.

As of June 2011, there are no licensing requirements in Colorado, Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota or Wyoming; Alabama and Alaska have requirements in certain cities.

Prior to commencing an assignment, the law firm should request proof of liability insurance to protect the firm in case something does go wrong.

Communicate Your Needs

It is critical to communicate to the private investigator as much information as possible from the outset, no matter how minute the details may be.

It is also important for the law firm to understand what information is potentially attainable and what may not be, within the confines of the law.

Subject Matter Expertise

The private investigator should have subject matter expertise relating to the situation at hand.

If the investigation calls for surveillance, finding a witnessintelligence gatheringdue diligence investigationcomprehensive background investigationasset investigation or an expert witness background investigation, a private investigator should be able to provide the law firm with examples of previous work done on similar matters.

Establish a Budget and Deliverables

The private investigator should prepare a descriptive agenda of your objectives and what efforts the investigative firm will make to accomplish those goals.

The investigation should be conducted in stages, with deliverables provided upon completion of each stage, so the law firm can have a measuring stick to gauge the progress of the assignment.

Engagement Letter

Included in the engagement letter should be an indemnity agreement in case the private investigator engages in professional misconduct or violates the law.

Additionally, the scope of the work, the agreed-upon budget, any agreed-upon retainer agreement and a termination clause should be included in the engagement letter.

Documentation of the parameters in an engagement letter can alleviate future disputes over objectives, timing and fees.

Enjoyed What You Read?

Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date with what Hal Humphreys, from Pursuit Magazine, believes to be one of the absolute best blogs in the investigative industry!

A pre-litigation asset search can provide you or your client with valuable information to determine if a lawsuit is worth filing or to gain leverage in the course of negotiations prior to filing a lawsuit.

Going through litigation is expensive.  There is nothing worse than racking up tens of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees only to find the person or company you are suing doesn’t have anything of value.  In other cases, you may be in the midst of negotiating a settlement prior to filing a lawsuit and want to see how far you can push the negotiations, or if you should cut your losses and settle.

In pre-litigation mode, attorneys don’t have the luxury of having the legal authority to access information about liquid assets such as bank accounts and investment accounts.  Attorneys need information quickly, discreetly and most importantly, legally.

What to consider?

Determining whether you should sue a person or a company has two parts – what they may own and what other potential liabilities they may have.  Of course there may be a whole host of hidden assets, but here are a few key assets and potential liabilities that can be identified quickly, discreetly and legally in a pre-litigation asset search:

Assets


Personal Assets

The most significant asset that people own is typically their home, but other assets that can be identified through open sources include motor vehicles, boats and airplanes.  Beyond the obvious assets held directly by a person, assets may also be held by a close associate, family trust, family member or shell company.  Real property assets may have also been recently transferred to other related parties or held overseas.

Business Assets

In addition to holding individual assets, assets may also be held in a corporate entity.   Identifying corporate affiliations through secretary of state filings and other research is an important step in identifying assets held by affiliated companies which may not be held by the subject directly.

Liabilities


Bankruptcy

Obviously, if the person or company has filed for bankruptcy protection, you will eventually be notified and you can file a claim in the bankruptcy proceeding.  What if you haven’t been notified yet?  If the person or company has a history of filing for bankruptcy protection, wouldn’t you want to know?

Civil Litigation

If other civil litigation has already been initiated against the person or company you are about to sue, you may be in a long line of creditors once your lawsuit has finally been settled.  It may also be a sign that you should settle fast.

Judgments/Liens

If the person or company has been subject to recent judgments and/or lien filings, this may be a sign that the company is already heading for trouble.

Final thought

Conducting a pre-litigation asset search can quickly identify assets and potential liabilities that can help you make a more informed decision about whether you should file a lawsuit or if you should cut your losses and settle prior to filing a lawsuit.

Enjoyed What You Read?

Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date with what Hal Humphreys, from Pursuit Magazine, believes to be one of the absolute best blogs in the investigative industry!

A private investigator is routinely called upon at various stages of a civil lawsuit. The case may not yet be filed – the attorney wants to find out as much information before he or she has to file a complaint. Perhaps the attorney is looking for additional information to bolster the amended complaint. It is also possible that litigation has been going on for years, and the attorney is trying to re-energize his case or prepare for a tough round of cross-examination.

Below are 5 scenarios where investigators were able to provide attorneys with valuable assistance:

The Reluctant Witness

After years of litigation, attorneys were trying to get the last of their key depositions completed. One of the defendant’s witnesses simply refused to appear for his deposition. He claimed that, due to his deteriorating health, he was no longer working and his doctor advised that the stress of a deposition would be too taxing for him.

Attorneys called in their private investigators who quickly discovered that the witness had recently purchased a small sailboat and a sports car. Furthermore, the witness had recently received a speeding ticket for driving significantly over the speed limit in his new car. Additional investigation revealed photos of the witness splashed across the society pages – at galas, regattas, and the theatre. He even tweeted about his recent deep sea fishing excursion. The judge was furious, the opposing attorneys were embarrassed, and the witness was soon deposed.

The Internal Investigation

The general counsel at a major corporation contacted her outside counsel for advice. An executive was suspected of receiving kickbacks from international suppliers. Private investigators were brought in by the outside counsel and they began to conduct discrete interviews and review the executive’s corporate telephone records and email exchanges.

While they did substantiate the kickback allegations, the intelligence led investigators to uncover evidence of a larger cover-up by the executive and others at one of the overseas facilities. There was proof of a significant environmental accident that had been hidden from corporate management and the local government officials.

The Employment Discrimination Suit

An employee of a large corporation alleged that during the workday for the past two years, he had experienced sexual harassment and threats through phone calls and emails. Although the communications were anonymous, the information conveyed to the employee led him to believe that they came from someone within the corporation. When he felt the company didn’t address his complaints and reporting of the incidents adequately, the employee quit his job and filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the company.

Through interviews, phone records, and intelligence gathering, investigators were able to narrow the pool of potential harassers down to three individuals. The employees’ company-owned computer hard drives were imaged and searched, revealing documents and an Internet history that supported the employee’s allegations. The lawsuit was settled to the company’s satisfaction. The offending employee was fired, arrested, and named as a defendant in several civil lawsuits.

The Insider’s Secrets

The highly-anticipated release of Company X’s new video game was shrouded in secrecy. All of Company X’s employees and contractors signed non-disclosure agreements and significant security measures were in place at the warehouse and development sites. As a result, there was shock throughout the industry when Company X’s game showed up on the Internet sites weeks before the release. Company X’s sales were half of what they had anticipated. The Company X CEO was furious and convinced that someone had leaked information to their biggest competitor.

Investigators were immediately brought in to review of surveillance, computer and phone records. A tip line was established and numerous interviews conducted. Through significant intelligence-gathering, investigators were able to prove that a group of key Company X executives had recently attended the same Asian conference as their competitors. During that time, the competitors purchased a development copy of the game and other corporate information regarding Company X. A criminal investigation commenced and Company X immediately filed a civil lawsuit against its competitor.

The Class Action

Two neighbors approached an attorney with complaints about recurring problems and broken parts in their dishwashers. The appliances were the same model, manufactured by a national company and serviced through regional centers. The attorney brought in investigators who were able to locate and interview people who had previously worked for the manufacturer and the service centers.

Many of the witnesses spoke of a systemic problem that was ignored by corporate management. In fact, several of the former employees had also owned that model of dishwasher and suffered similar problems. Using the information from the investigators, the attorney filed a class action lawsuit and eventually obtained a large settlement for his clients and class members.

Enjoyed What You Read?

Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date with what Hal Humphreys, from Pursuit Magazine, believes to be one of the absolute best blogs in the investigative industry!

An attorney may think that they do not have any need for an experienced private investigator because of the variety of skills and resources that they employ.  But have you ever found yourself staring at a computer screen and asking:

I know the answer is out there…Where do we go from here?

Although law school and career experience provide an attorney with a number of useful research techniques and litigation skill, they do have limits.

Consulting with a professional private investigator can help attorney’s to leverage your position and find creative and efficient ways to come out ahead of your adversary.

Here are 10 ways that an attorney can use a professional private investigator:

1 Locate People

It may be a witness or an heir. Perhaps it’s a former employee who can shed light on corporate misconduct. Or maybe you need to locate a witness in possession of the proverbial “smoking gun.” Whether you would like to interview, serve, or investigate someone, an investigator can help you to identify and locate the individual.

2 Locate Assets

Investigators are skilled at locating assets such as real estate, valuable property (artwork, antiques, collectibles, etc.), and vehicles (motor vehicles, aircraft, vessels, etc.). An investigator can also help attorneys to identify the location both domestic and offshore bank accounts (though the details of these assets may not necessarily be disclosed by banking institutions without court order or permission from the account holder – see our post 5 Myths: What a Private Investigator Cannot (Legally) Get.

3 Leverage for Negotiations

An investigator can pull together key sources and intelligence to inform your side during litigation, an M &A deal, internal investigation, or any other adversarial situation that can make the difference between a favorable settlement.

4 Enforce Judgments

A judgment is only useful if you are able to enforce it. An investigator can help attorneys to identify current assets and any efforts to hide or misrepresent them through the transfer to family members, friends or other parties.

5 Connect the Dots

Investigators can help you to know who is actually sitting on the other side of the table during litigation or a potential business deal. You can gain immeasurable negotiation power by identifying who is actually behind a faceless corporation or tying together undisclosed connections.

6 Predict Your Opponent’s Next Move

Through an investigation, you can learn your opponent’s history and patterns of behaviors so as to best predict how they will react under pressure. This will help you to be successful in litigation strategizing, during cross examination, or at the deal table.

7 Prep For Cross Examination

During preparation for a deposition or courtroom testimony, an investigator’s report detailing your witnesses’ weaknesses, background, and behavioral tendencies may be one of your most valuable tools. This can also be useful in identifying information against your client, so you can be prepared for what may come up during the course of the litigation.

8 Collect and review electronic evidence

Whether it is an adversarial matter or an internal investigation, investigators may be used to efficiently recover electronic files – including those that a subject believes he or she has successfully deleted. Investigators are frequently used to identify and analyze a subject’s emails, documents, or other files.

9 Trademark and Intellectual Property Monitoring

Investigators can be used to successfully police a company’s products throughout the world. Counterfeiting and improper diversion of products onto the grey market are just two of the most common areas where an investigator can provide intelligence and assistance.

10 Reconstruction

A historical reconstruction may be helpful in a number of different areas. Perhaps you need to review the history of a family to locate heirs. It could be a corporate history or a chain of title issue in a real estate matter. Whatever the issue, an investigator can help to identify and piece together long lost documents, facts and witnesses.

Enjoyed What You Read?

Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date with what Hal Humphreys, from Pursuit Magazine, believes to be one of the absolute best blogs in the investigative industry!