October 23, 2012

Find Info Like a Pro: Investigating Court Docket Databases

In their new ABA book Find Info Like a Pro, Volume 2, the authors cover ways to tap into the vast resources of the Internet for your investigative research. This special excerpt focuses on some nontraditional uses of court docket databases.

When you think about uses for court docket databases, you probably think about your traditional uses of these databases—to file your pleadings or to search the database to locate a missing pleading. Some lawyers go a step further and use docket databases to find other lawyers’ pleadings to serve as a sample for cases they are working on. For example, in one instance, a firm needed to file a motion to freeze assets (the day before the New Year’s Eve holiday). Since time was of the essence, instead of drafting one from scratch, the firm wanted to locate a similar motion to pattern theirs after. Knowing of a similar case, the firm was able to pinpoint a useful motion by quickly searching that case’s online docket sheet. A messenger was then sent to the courthouse to make a copy of the motion to use as a sample (those were the days before documents were available online for immediate download).

Savvy “info pros” (from lawyers, legal administrators and law librarians, to paralegals and members of a law firm’s marketing or recruiting departments) all know that court docket databases can also be used for nontraditional uses, such as various types of investigative research.

Using dockets for investigative research has become an easier task as more courts provide their dockets over the Internet in a searchable database, with many even including the full-text of the underlying pleadings, from complaints to answers, motions and briefs, and often, the final opinions.

Investigative Uses for Docket Databases
The following are some of the uses of docket databases for investigative research.

Backgrounding Prospective Clients, Opposing Parties or Witnesses. You can conduct background research by entering the name of a prospective client, an opposing party or a witness, and so on, into a docket database to learn:

  • How litigious they are

  • What type of past suits they have been involved in

  • What type of suits they are currently involved in

  • Which lawyers the parties have retained in the past

  • Whether a prospective client has filed any lawyer malpractice lawsuits

  • Whether a prospective client has been sued for lawyer’s fees

  • On which side a particular expert witness has testified

  • If the person has ever declared bankruptcy

Backgrounding Judges. Dockets can be used to research judges, although this only works with those docket databases that provide a search box where you can enter a judge’s name. By entering the name of a judge into the search box, you might learn:

  • Types of cases the judge typically hears

  • How the judge typically ruled in the past on specific matters or issues (such as summary judgment motions, motion for new trials, and so on)

Backgrounding Attorneys. Dockets can also be used to research lawyers, although this only works with docket databases that provide a search box where you can enter a lawyer’s name. By entering the name of an opposing lawyer (or even a lawyer you want to recruit) you might learn:

  • What types of cases the lawyer typically handles

  • Who the lawyer typically represents

  • The lawyer’s caseload

Conducting Due Diligence. You can protect yourself by researching dockets to discover if a prospective client or partner has been involved in a bankruptcy or any type of fraud. Also, you might protect a current client who seeks your advice about whether to go into business with someone—by backgrounding the potential business partner through docket searching. Search bankruptcy dockets in particular, but also be on the look out for allegations of fraud, breach of contract, and the like.

Current Awareness, Client Development and Client Retention. Docket research can help you answer these questions:

  • Who is suing whom?

  • Who is representing whom?

  • Is it time to shift your practice to the hot practice areas? (Review the types of cases being filed to figure this out.)

  • Which lawyers are handling the hot practice areas? (This helps for recruiting purposes.)

  • Is a current or former client being sued and doesn’t know it? You can review local dockets regularly to keep clients apprised.

A word of caution: Most courts have disclaimers on their docket databases that the database is “for information purposes only” and that only the clerk’s transcript is the official transcript.

Which Courts Have Placed Dockets on the Internet?
First of all, no blanket statement can be made as to the ready availability of dockets on the Internet. Every court is different and the rules are constantly changing. Some courts are currently:

  • Providing free access or providing free access but requiring a password

  • Charging a fee for access

  • Providing no electronic access at all

  • Allowing access to both civil and criminal dockets

  • Limiting access to civil dockets only

  • Placing images of the pleadings online for immediate download

Privacy Concerns
Courts that limit the type of dockets and pleadings they place on the Internet are basing their decision on various privacy needs, from protecting a litigant’s general right to privacy to protecting privacy only in specific types of cases (such as family law where minors’ names are given), or to comply with confidentiality laws (for example, in juvenile law cases). Courts are also concerned with identity theft.

The federal and state courts are each drafting their own access rules, typically differentiating between the three access points to court records: (1) in-person access to the paper copy at the courthouse; (2) in-person access to the digital records via public computers located at the courthouse; and (3) remote access to digital records via the Internet.

While some courts place documents online that others would not, those courts that place many documents online are trying to ensure at least some semblance of privacy for the more sensitive information by allowing the litigants to redact the information (but in the electronic file only). “Sensitive information” (which the federal courts label as “personal data identifiers”) refers to full Social Security numbers, full dates of birth, financial account numbers and names of minor children.

Metasites for Finding Federal and State Online Court Dockets
Here is an overview of the research purpose and contents of primary sites linking to state and federal dockets and documents. [Note: Find Info Like a Pro, Volume 2, contains a comprehensive listing of several additional free and commercial sites.]

Legal Dockets Online (Free)

  • Purpose: To discover which courts’ docket sheets, pleadings and case records (and more) are available.

  • Content: Users of this site select a state from the alphabetical state list to view and link to federal, state and local courts’ dockets within that state’s jurisdiction.

  • Our View: Links are often annotated with useful information. For example, the link for Los Angeles County Superior Court Civil, Family, Probate contains an annotation that this site is “for L.A. County Bar Members Prior Court Civil, Family, Probate Cases;” Appelllate Division contains an annotation that this site allows you to “Search by Case Number Only.” If a site is free, this is also noted. On the downside, the site is not comprehensive. For example, two of the docket databases for the Los Angeles Superior Court were recently missing from the list. (Note: After contacting the site’s owner, he immediately added the two missing databases.)

  • Tip: In addition to links to state and federal court dockets for each state, you will also see a list with links to other categories of public records.

Rules, Forms and Dockets (Free)
(Scroll down to Type of Resource, then click on Dockets)

  • Purpose: To discover which courts’ docket sheets, pleadings and case records are available on the Internet.

  • Content: Users can search and link to many federal, state and local dockets either by using keyword searching (e.g., los angeles dockets) or browsing by court type (such as tax court), by jurisdiction (federal or state), or by state (choose a specific state to view a list of all federal and state courts located in that state). Although you can search with the keyword docket and get appropriate results, you will not necessarily see that word in your list of results or as you browse through the list of courts by jurisdiction or type. Almost any court entry word that does not include the words “Rules” or “Forms” will be some sort of docket database. For instance, “—U.S. District of Montana—Welcome to Pacer” refers to dockets, as does “—U.S. District Court Western District of Oklahoma—CM/ECF Live.” Links are annotated with useful information. For example, for federal courts you are told which docket system each uses and for state courts you are told if document images are available for immediate downloading.

  • Our View: We find the annotations useful, such as search by case number only. We also like the various search functions and the price—free. However, like Legal Dockets Online, the list is not comprehensive.

  • Tip: This court docket database also includes links to court rules and court forms available on the Internet (for a total of over 1,400 sources).

Federal Dockets and Case Records
PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records)
or www.pacer.gov/register.html (new users )

PACER is the federal government’s pay docket site. The serves only as the judiciary’s centralized registration, billing and technical support center, which you need to contact for a login name and password (issued free). While PACER is the database where you would search for a case’s docket and case file, CM/ECF is where you would electronically file a case (and the ensuing documents that comprise the case file).

There is no annual charge to subscribe to PACER, but there are usage fees. It will cost you 8¢ per page to view, print or download court data (or 60¢ per minute for dial-in access) with some exceptions. There is no charge to obtain the court’s written opinions, and attorneys of record and parties in a case (including pro se litigants) receive one free electronic copy of all documents filed electronically if receipt is required by law or directed by the filer.

  • Purpose: PACER allows access to federal case and docket information, transcripts and written opinions, and many images of the underlying documents in all approved federal judiciary electronic public access programs (PACER, CM/ECF and the Case Locator). It covers district, appellate and bankruptcy courts, the Judicial Panel On Multidistrict Litigation and the U.S. Federal Claims Courts.

  • Content: The type of information included in the docket and the criteria you can use to search will vary depending on the court type. However, most dockets include: a list of all parties and participants (including judges and lawyers); a list of case-related information (e.g., for civil cases: the cause of action, nature of the suit and the dollar demand); a list of all events entered into the case record, by date; appellate court opinions; and judgments or case status

Some PACER dockets also provide immediate access to the documents listed in the docket sheet (this will be indicated if the number adjacent to the docket entry is underlined). All courts using the CM/ECF docket provide access to the documents listed in the docket sheet (click on the circle adjacent to the document to select the document).

From PACER’s Individual Court PACER Sites page at www.pacer.gov/psco/cgi-bin/links.pl, you can choose a specific court to search for case information or a document (or in which to file a document). To the right of each court name, there are usually two (sometimes three) icons that need to be hovered over to display informational text or clicked on for further instructions. (Although there is a link to the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court does not participate in PACER; it provides its own free docketing system at www.uscourts.cavc.gov/electronic_filing/CaseDocketReport.cfm.)

By clicking on Pacer Case Locator (formerly known as the U.S. Party/Case Index) from PACER’s home page, you can also search all PACER federal court dockets simultaneously, except for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which must be searched individually.

  • Our View: PACER is the most economical pay docket database. At 8¢ per page, you can’t beat the price. So, even though it can sometimes be cumbersome to use (because each court maintains its own internal electronic case management system and its own unique URL) and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit is missing from the Case Locator, you will probably want to start your search here before using any of the other pay docket databases. We’d like to see a full-text keyword searchable docket database of all the documents at PACER and more search tips displayed on the search menu pages.

  • Tips: For those who bill their clients, a client code of your choosing can be entered each time you log into PACER. Use pay databases when you need more user-friendly search options and to set up automatic alerts. To receive e-mail notices each time an event is docketed, see the Frequently Asked Questions at www.pacer.gov/psc/efaq.html#CMECF (be sure to click on the CM/ECF tab and not the PACER tab). Because some courts do provide case information on the Internet without support by PACER, check the individual court’s home page at www.uscourts.gov/court_locator.aspx.

PACER also includes the Case Locator, which might be your first step if you want to do a broad search to find a party’s dockets in more than one court or if you don’t know in which court they filed (or were filed against).

State Courts’ Online Dockets and Documents
Many state and local courts are placing their dockets online. State courts, however, are not bound by the rules and policies promulgated by the Federal Judicial Conference of the United States’ Committee on Court Administration and Case Management regarding access to electronic court documents. Instead, the for State Courts and the Justice Management Institute (at the behest of the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators [CCJ/COSCA]) produced a model policy for state courts. The policy, which seeks to provide a consistent way to access electronic court documents in each state, advocates access to electronic court records. However, it seeks to limit access to information in court documents that is not already accessible to the public pursuant to federal or state law, court rule or case law. The policy was endorsed by CCJ/COSCA on August 1, 2002.

For current information about which state courts offer online public access to court dockets and documents, visit the for State Courts site at http://tinyurl.com/statedockets. For information about state privacy policies for court records, see http://tinyurl.com/statedocketsprivacy. The NCSC also provides links to each state’s administrative office of the courts, court of last resort, intermediate appellate courts and trial courts (http://tinyurl.com/statecourtwebsites).