Features - Access to Online Dockets and Court Records Benefits All Legal ProfessionalsBy Carole Levitt, Published on November 18, 2002
Carole Levitt is President of Internet For Lawyers (IFL). IFL focuses on Internet research training for legal professionals and also Internet marketing. Carole is Vice-Chair of the California State Bar Law Practice Management & Technology(LPMT)Section’s Executive Board and serves on the Los Angeles County Bar’s LPMT Section’s Executive Board. She and Mark Rosch have co-authored “How to Use the Internet for Legal, Business and Investigative Research: A Guide for Legal Professionals” and she is the regular contributor to the Los Angeles Lawyer’s Computer Counselor column. IFL welcomes your phone calls (310-559-2247) or emails ([email protected]). Visit www.netforlawyers.com for more information and for a list of MCLE in-person and online seminars.
Whether you are an attorney, a legal administrator, a law librarian, a paralegal or a member of the firm’s marketing or recruiting departments, access to dockets can assist you in your work. Attorneys, law librarians and paralegals find dockets to be useful for current awareness (e.g. keeping up with who is suing who, what the hot areas of practice are these days, and is my client being sued and doesn’t know it?). They also use dockets to obtain sample pleadings from cases similar to the one the firm is currently working on. And, searching dockets online is also useful in the “missing document dilemma,” when someone can’t put his or her hands on a pleading they filed or the opposition filed…what better place to look than the docket sheet to identify the missing pleading? For background research, dockets are useful for discovering what types of cases the judge you are soon going before typically hears, what type of cases the opposing attorney typically deals with, or even how a certain judge has typically ruled on summary judgment motions.
Meanwhile, the legal administrator and marketing and recruiting departments will find dockets useful for a myriad of business purposes, from client development and client retention to making hiring decisions. Accessing docket sheets used to require a trip to the courthouse and then usually a return trip to copy the chosen pleadings. But now, thanks to the Internet, online access to docket sheets and even online retrieval of the full-text of some of the pleadings listed in the docket sheets has become an easier task. This article will explore how to access state, local and federal dockets and other case information, and, in some cases, find images of the court records online.
Finding Out What Type of Docket and Court Record Information Courts Have Placed Online
First of all, no blanket statement can be made as to what is available online. Every court is different and the rules are constantly changing. Some courts provide free access to dockets, others charge for access and others provide no electronic access at all. Some courts provide access to both civil and criminal dockets, while others limit access to civil only. Some also provide images of the pleadings referred to in the docket sheet. When courts limit the type of dockets placed online, their reasoning is based on the need to protect the litigant’s privacy (e.g. in family law cases) or to comply with confidentiality laws (e.g. in juvenile law cases). Some courts will place information online that others would not, but attempt to at least insure some privacy over the more “sensitive” information (such as social security numbers or names of minor children in family law cases) by redacting the “sensitive” information. While this article will not focus on the privacy issues involved in the access to electronic records question, for those interested in this issue, please see my upcoming article in the Computer Counselor column in the December 2002 issue of the Los Angeles Lawyer magazine (it will also be posted at http://www.netforlawyers.com/articles.htm).
Finding Out Which Courts Have Placed Their Dockets and Court Records Online
Discovering which courts’ dockets and records are available online (free or for a fee) can be accomplished by using the free LLRX.com “Court Rules, Forms and Dockets” database (http://www.llrx.com/courtrules/), or the pay site, Legal Dockets Online--LDO (http://www.legaldockets.com/). They each attempt to link to all federal, state and local dockets and other court records on the web. LDO’s links are browseable by state only--while LLRX users can conduct keyword searches, browse by Court Type (e.g., Tax Court), by Jurisdiction (choose “Federal” or “State”) or by State (choose a specific state to view a list of all federal and state courts located in that state). Both LDO and LLRX annotate their docket links. For example, for state and federal courts, LDO informs you if the database is free by displaying a “FREE” notation (in all caps and red) in the left margin. For federal courts, LLRX and LDO both describe the type of docket system the court uses (such as Web Pacer, Racer, CM/ECF) and states if document images are available for immediate downloading. For state courts, an LLRX annotation may provide a search tip, such as “Search by case number only.” Both the LLRX and LDO dockets databases link to other sources besides dockets. LLRX links to court rules and court forms (for a total of over 1,400 sources) while LDO links to case information, calendars, lists of new filings, inmate databases and Stanford University’s Securities Law database.
When I last wrote about LDO, it was free, but required registration. Now, it is a pay site. Individual subscribers are charged $120 per year. There are also group discounts ($1,200 per year for an entire firm). A free week trial is available. An added bonus for annual subscribers is an e-mail alert sent each time LDO finds a new online docket site.
Which of these two sources would I use? I’d probably use both since each one offers some information that the other doesn’t. However, even taken together, neither one is 100% comprehensive. For instance, I did not find the Los Angeles County Bar Association Civil Register database at either site.
A newer resource that contains information about electronic access policies for each states’ court records (with a link to those policies), in addition to web site addresses and contact information for each courts’ docket database is offered by the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), whose mission is “to promote democratic values and constitutional liberties in the digital age” (http://www.cdt.org/publications/020821courtrecords.shtml#ca) . They provide an impressive and up-to-date (current as of July 1, 2002) state-by-state list. To compile this information, CDT first used a July 2001 report by a subcommittee of the Maryland Advisory Committee on Access to Court Records (http://www.courts.state.md.us/access/states7-5-01.pdf) and then wrote to each state for updates. The report, prepared by the Maryland Advisory Committee on Access to Court Records, is also worth reviewing, by the way, in addition to the CDT’s state-by-state summary.
Dockets Serve a Variety of Uses
Use Dockets as a Shortcut to Researching and Drafting Pleadings
Historical dockets can be used to prepare for future cases. For example, earlier we mentioned how useful it would be to obtain a complaint or a motion to use as a sample in a case similar to yours. In a recent instance, a firm needed to file a motion to freeze assets (the day before the New Years Eve holiday), and in the press of time, wanted to locate a sample motion to review instead of drafting it from scratch. Knowing of a similar case, the firm was able to pinpoint a useful motion from that case with a quick check of the docket online. A messenger was then sent to the courthouse to make a copy of the motion for use as a sample.
Using Dockets to Conduct Due Diligence on Prospective Clients and Prospective Firm Members
While the Recruiting department may be interested in using dockets as part of the regular employee background check (to search for bankruptcies, conflicts or other problems), attorneys, administrators, paralegals and law librarians will search dockets to conduct due diligence of prospective clients or partners. Has the prospective client or partner been involved in a bankruptcy, for example or any type of fraud? Is a prospective client litigious? Has a prospective client filed any malpractice lawsuits? Or, has a prospective client been sued for attorney’s fees? By a simple docket search, many of these questions can be answered to assist you in your due diligence.
Using Federal Dockets For Topical Current Awareness
At the federal level, docket research can be used for topical current awareness by searching for cases by the “Nature of the Suit” (NOS), a subject matter categorization of federal civil cases. Categories and codes are listed at http://pacer.psc.uscourts.gov/natsuit.html). For instance, a personal injury attorney can search NOS code “310”(Airplane) to keep abreast of every personal injury suit filed involving airplanes. While NOS searches must be conducted manually at the government’s PACER site, they can be set up to run automatically at some of the commercial sites such as CourtEXPRESS (http://www.courtexpress.com/) or CourtLink, which is accessible through LexisNexis and is now referred to as “CourtLink eAccess” (http://www.lexisnexis/courtink.com/).
Using Dockets for Business Development and to Maintain Ongoing Client Relations
Other reasons to research dockets are for business development and maintaining ongoing client relations. Attorneys can warn ongoing clients about any complaints filed against the client--but not yet served. To accomplish this, an e-alert can be set up with various docket services (e.g. CourtLink, CourtExpress, etc.) to alert you anytime a client’s name or his or her company name shows up in a newly filed complaint.
Another option of discovering if a client has been sued is to scan complaints on a daily basis in courts where you practice. For example, Courthouse News Service is a fee-based site that emails a daily summary of new cases filed in several federal and state courts. The following is a partial list of the California courts covered by the Service: the Bankruptcy Court (California Chapter 11 filings), the U.S. Central District Court and Northern District, the Los Angeles County Superior Court (downtown and the branches) and the San Francisco County Superior Court. Other courts that are covered range from federal and state courts in Las Vegas to federal courts in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, Hawaii, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky plus the eastern and western districts of Texas, Boston, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island, etc. For a complete list of courts covered by Courthouse News see http://www.courthousenews.com/subinfo.html. The daily summary email includes the case caption, a brief description of the issues and facts involved and the name of each party’s attorney. If the complaint is available for immediate download, this will be indicated, otherwise, phone the Service to request a fax of the complaint.
Obtaining Federal Dockets and Case Records
To access U.S. District, U.S. Appellate and U.S. Bankruptcy court dockets (and sometimes images of the documents themselves) by the most economical, but most cumbersome method, use PACER, (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), provided by the U.S. Judiciary. PACER Service Center (http://pacer.psc.uscourts.gov) is the judiciary's centralized registration, billing, and technical support center, but each court maintains its own internal electronic case management system and its own unique URL (or in some cases, a modem number for dial-up access). For an overview of Pacer, see http://pacer.psc.uscourts.gov/pacerdesc.html.
A login and password will be issued free, with a $.07 per page charge for “Web Pacer” or $.60 per minute for dial-up access. You will be billed on a quarterly basis for your transactions. A measure was approved by the Judicial Conference of the United States in March 2001 stating that no fee is owed until a user accrues more than $10 worth of charges in a calendar year. For those who bill their clients, a client code of your choosing can be entered each time you log in to PACER.
It should be noted that there are two distinct dial-up PACER services: one for the U.S. District Courts and U.S. Court of Federal Claims and the other for the U.S. Bankruptcy Courts. There are sample dial-up PACER Bankruptcy Case Information dockets to view at http://pacer.psc.uscourts.gov/bksamples/bkcase.html. Search by case number (i.e., 91-12345), by name, by social security number (or by tax id). To search by an individual’s name, enter the LAST name FIRST (i.e., Brown, David). For businesses, enter the NAME of the business (i.e., David Brown Engraving).
When searching a specific court’s site, you’ll see that search parameters vary from court to court. For example, in the bankruptcy index you can search by party name or social security number, in the civil index by party name or nature of the suit, in the criminal index by defendant name, and in the appellate index by party name.
Aside from the individual courts’ dockets, Pacer also includes the U.S. Party/Case Index, which is a “national” locator index of most federal filings. I place “national” in quotations marks because not all courts participate; and so it’s not truly a national search, but it’s the best we’ve got! See http://pacer.psc.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/miss-court.pl for a list of non-participating courts. In California, all federal courts are participating in the Index. The index displays the party name, court, case number and filing date.
The amount of information available online at the courts’ sites varies depending upon the type of case and the amount of “personal identifier data” found within the court records. Recently, the Judicial Conference of the Administrative Offices of the U.S. Courts recommended that some of the “personal identifier data,” such as social security numbers, be redacted from any case files to which the public has remote electronic access and that criminal case files not be placed on the Internet at all. However, as of October 2002, I am still finding social security numbers listed in bankruptcy dockets.
By 2005, CM/ECF (Case Management/Electronic Case Files) will replace each federal court's internal electronic case management system (and will also provide for electronic filing). See http://www.uscourts.gov/Press_Releases/pacer.html for details.
The U.S. Supreme Court dockets are not part of the Pacer system. Instead, they are available from the Supreme Court, but only the current and prior term dockets are archived (http://www.supremecourtus.gov/docket/docket.html). Search by the Supreme Court or lower court docket number, by case name or by any word or phrase (e.g. an attorney’s name).
Commercial Docket Databases
Why use a commercial service if you have free or low cost access to federal and state court dockets at some of the courts’ websites? There are several reasons. First, commercial services create user-friendly searchable databases by downloading the court’s dockets (note that these searchable databases are typically available only for federal dockets). This allows you to search by more options than the official court sites--which usually allow searching just by docket number (although some do allow party name or attorney name searching). For instance, on CourtLink, you can search federal dockets by the name of the litigant, attorney or judge and also by a subject or by any keywords in a docket. You can limit the search to specific courts (or all) or to class action suits. Second, you can automate case tracking and other types of tracking at the commercial docket sites. Third, if you search (unknowingly) for a docket that has been taken off of the courts’ site and archived offline by the court, you may still find it at the commercial site where dockets are not taken offline. And, finally, commercial sites provide document ordering—something that the official court sites typically do not offer. Let’s take a close look at 3 of the commercial vendors: CourtLink, CourtEXPRESS, and West Dockets.
A Close Look at CourtLink
CourtLink accesses federal court dockets and selected state and local courts’ dockets. Searching is divided into two types: “Advanced Database Searching” for federal district courts (civil, criminal and bankruptcy) and also Delaware Chancery Court and “Direct Access” for state and local dockets (other than Delaware). For courts that fall within the “Advanced Database Searching” system, CourtLink downloads dockets each evening and creates a searchable database. Of the 3 federal docket databases, only CourtLink includes bankruptcy dockets in its searchable database. For the state and local courts that are accessible through the “Direct Access” system, no searchable database has been created. Instead, CourtLink dials into the courts and users can search only by docket number (or party name--depending on how the court has set up their database).
To search the federal case docket database, you select “Search” from the home page. But, for the courts that are only searchable by docket number or party name (most state and local), researchers must know to select “Retrieve.” An infrequent user may not know to do this and may make the mistake (as I did) of clicking on “Search” and then selecting “State”, and then wondering why their local state court did not appear in the state’s drop down menu. Because I knew that the Los Angeles Superior Court was on CourtLink, I went directly to “Search”, then selected the “State” section in the “Search” area. But, when only 3 counties were listed, with Los Angeles not being one of them, I was stymied - as were some of the CourtLink representatives at their exhibit booth at the California State Bar convention in mid-October 2002. Thanks to some excellent customer service a few days later, I learned that because there was no searchable database for most states’ courts, I should have selected the “Retrieve” function to search the Los Angeles Superior Court by docket number. (See below for information on the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s searchable database of the Los Angeles Superior Court’s dockets.)
When searching bankruptcy dockets, infrequent users should note that they will first see only a summary ($5). Since I knew that the case I was searching for had been closed in 2000, I didn’t think that I needed to “update” the case so I ignored the “Update Full Docket” button. However, in order to view the full docket, it turns out that I did need to click on “Update Full Docket” ($9) and then “Case Results.” Some of the navigation could be clearer. According to CourtLink staff, this is being worked on.
With CourtLink, you can also set up “Alerts” (for federal district courts, bankruptcy courts and Delaware Chancery) or “Tracks” (for federal district courts, bankruptcy courts, U.S. Court of Federal Claims, U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals, and selected states) to receive an email anytime a filing matches your search criteria. You can create an “Alert” for the following: (1) all new filings in selected courts (or limit by subject in the selected court); (2) lawsuits involving a specific practice area, litigant, attorney, judge or debtor; (3) class actions—all or limit by court or subject or (4) bankruptcy chapters (e.g. search all chapter 7s). You can create a “Track” to track specific federal cases and selected cases in 19 states by docket number. The state choices vary widely, from California, where you can track 5 of the 58 counties’ superior courts to Connecticut and New Jersey where you can search all superior courts. Choose a daily, weekly, or monthly notification. Pricing varies on the frequency of notification and the court chosen. For example, tracking on a daily basis in federal district court costs $5 per day while the cost is $12.50 for a New Jersey state case. A monthly notification is $10 for a federal district court case and $18.50 for New Jersey.
Another search function in CourtLink is “Docket Smart,” which allows you to search a name (of a party, attorney or judge) through all federal civil courts.
CourtLink claims to go back further in time than other services and have more state and local coverage. As to pricing, CourtLink offers transactional and subscription pricing. Transactional charges vary depending upon the court and the number of results. For example, a federal court search begins at $5 and there is a 25-cent surcharge for each result over 20 cases. To retrieve any of the documents from the docket sheet, users are referred to outside vendors.
A Close Look at CourtEXPRESS
CourtEXPRESS has docket services similar to CourtLink, with access to federal and selected state courts, but in addition also searches the U.S. Supreme Court (by docket number only) and the U.S. Tax Court. The alert and monitoring services and the searchable databases are mostly available for federal district court cases only, unlike CourtLink, which, as noted above covers more courts. Dates of coverage vary from court to court but may go back as far as the 1980s. You can enter a search and then continue on with your usual multi-tasking--when the search is complete, you will be notified by email. The cost to search is from $8 and up.
Clear Case is the service you would use if you wanted to search a database of downloaded historical and current federal district court dockets (civil or criminal, but not bankruptcy). You can search by litigant, attorney, firm, judge, keyword(s), phrases, case number, and case status (to limit the search to open or closed cases). The initial search that I did cost $5, with an additional $1.50 charge when 5 results were returned. To choose one docket would then cost $8 more.
You can also use CourtEXPRESS for business development searches. These services are referred to as Attorney/Firm Alert, Rain Maker, Client Watch, Criminal Alert, Case Tracker, and Due Diligence.
Rain Maker allows you to search federal civil dockets (U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals and U.S. District Courts) by NOS to prospect for clients in your practice area. Client Watch allows you to learn about newly filed civil complaints relating to existing or prospective clients by party name or NOS searching. The initial search goes back 30 days (and is priced at $8), and then the watch continues prospectively on a daily basis. You can be alerted as often as 2 times a day or as infrequently as once a month and are charged only when new cases are found. You can either pre-order the docket or complaint of any newly found case or wait until you review the alert. Judge Watch is similar to Client Watch, with a retrospective search by judge’s name (no charge) and a prospective search ($10/day if there are results). The Judge Watch can be further refined by ruling type, keywords, or case number.
Criminal Alert alerts you to newly filed criminal dockets by party name, while the Attorney/Firm Alert alerts you when an attorney or firm files a new federal district court case. This alert can also be narrowed down to searching for a specific NOS connected to a specific attorney or firm name.
Case Tracker allows you to track specific cases by court and case number. You can be alerted either each time a new filing is made in the case or only when a specific type of filing is made in the case--such as “motions.” The courts that can be searched are: U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals, U.S. District Courts, U.S. Bankruptcy Courts, and selected state courts.
Due Diligence (priced at $25) provides a historic federal litigation report (federal district, civil and criminal, bankruptcy and appellate court) about any individual or company; a recurring alert may also be set up.
If you need to order any of the underlying documents from the docket, you can use OneSource/OrderTrack, CourtEXPRESS’s document ordering and online tracking of orders service. The document will be emailed as a PDF or delivered by Federal Express, Fax, or Messenger (usually within one day) or you can request a phone call first before deciding on the delivery method. As Chuck Chandler, Vice President of Sales & Marketing for CourtEXPRESS points out searching for dockets online and then being able to order the underlying documents online from the same company is convenient not only to rushed researchers but also to the billing department since the charge is bundled in one invoice. Another added convenience is being able to track the order online much like you can track the status of a UPS delivery. The cost is $79 per document plus a $0.75 per page photocopying charge. For those who wonder how this fee compares to working directly with a local attorney service, everyone will have to do their own math. Barry Berkowitz, President of Now Legal Services in Los Angeles reported that the cost to retrieve a document from the downtown Los Angeles courthouse is $35 per hour, plus $.57 per page to copy, plus $1.00 per mile to deliver the document. If you prefer delivery via fax or email, the charge is $1.00 per page. Thus, the cost could fluctuate widely each time you need a document, depending on the length of the document, the degree of difficulty in obtaining the document (15 minutes is the usual time frame, but it could be more if the document is not yet available), and where the document needs to be delivered.
About 30 of the 130 courts on CourtEXPRESS make PDFs of their documents available online for immediate download. In that case, CourtEXPRESS informs you of this capability and you can immediately download the document via CourtEXPRESS for $0.25 per page instead of ordering the document. However, on the day that I tested CourtEXPRESS, the indication that documents were downloadable from the California Federal District Court (C.D.) was missing from the docket that I was viewing.
A Close Look at West Dockets
After the Lexis acquisition of CourtLink, Westlaw no longer could provide a gateway to CourtLink. Consequently, West began creating their own docket system, “WestDocket,” covering dockets from the U.S. Courts of Appeals, U.S. District Courts, U.S. Bankruptcy Courts, U.S. Court of Federal Claims and the New York Supreme Court Civil Cases (13 counties). West’s federal docket system is simply a gateway to Pacer, with even less search functionality than Pacer (there is no access to the National Party Index nor to any of the downloadable pleadings), and at $30 per search (if you are paying by the transaction) and $10 per document, you’re better off using Pacer. But, if the search functionality of West’s New York State Court docket system is any indication of things to come for West’s federal dockets, I might be willing to spend the extra money searching West’s federal dockets (or adding the Docket system to my flat-rate contract). Look for future improvement in the first quarter of 2003, according to Marc Luther, Product Manager of West Dockets.
Let’s take a look at West’s New York State Court docket system. First, you can search by filling in the template with any of the following: plaintiff name, defendant name, judge, county, and index or docket number. Second, you can search using the familiar West Terms and Connectors and third you can restrict your searching to specific Fields. For example, I wanted to locate all negligence cases where Michael Pressman was the attorney of record. I clicked on “Terms and Connectors” and limited my search by fields by searching for: at(pressman) & ctp(negligence), where “at” stood for attorney and “ctp” for case type. There are 21 fields to choose from. I found the searching very easy. For those interested in tracking cases (or types of cases, attorneys, etc.) WestClip, West’s clipping service, is available in the New York docket database. It runs your Terms and Connectors queries on a regular basis, delivering them automatically to you.
Do You Need Access To All The Docket Databases?
In a recent law library list serve posting, it was made apparent that we still need access to all the docket databases out there. In a search to download a bankruptcy court pleading from the Delaware Bankruptcy Court, a librarian found the docket on Pacer, but could not (for unknown technical reasons) download the pleading. Every time she clicked on the hypertext document number she was rewarded with a blank page. She then proceeded to CourtExpress, found the docket, but did not see any indication that she could download the pleadings. Finally, she proceeded to CourtLink and had success. Why? Because CourtLink downloads dockets and pleadings every evening to create a searchable database, CourtLink is not dependent on Pacer (except for same day dockets and pleadings); thus, even though Pacer was not working correctly, CourtLink came through since they didn’t have to dial into Pacer. Had the librarian needed a docket or pleading filed that day, she would not have succeeded at CourtLink either. She had no luck at CourtExpress because CourtExpress does not download bankruptcy dockets and pleadings into its searchable database—only federal district dockets and pleadings. If the Pacer bankruptcy system is not working correctly, then neither would CourtExpress. This is not to say that CourtLink always comes through and CourtExpress never does! The librarian stated that in similar situations she has found that sometimes Pacer is the winner, other times CourtExpress is the winner, and other times CourtLink. In the final words of the librarian, “it seems you have to maintain all three so they can back up one another.”
State Court Dockets
California State Court Dockets
Since we can’t review and evaluate each state’s docket databases here, we’ll focus on California as our sample state throughout the rest of the State section of this article.
The California Appellate Court added access to its dockets a few years ago (free), and later the California Supreme Court added theirs to the same database (http://appellatecases.courtinfo.ca.gov/index.html). Case information is added to the database hourly throughout the business day. Search for case information by case number (the trial court, Court of Appeal, or Supreme Court’s), or by case caption, attorney, or party. Users can also link to dockets from the Opinions database by clicking on the “i” icon (http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/opinions). The court also has an automatic e-mail notification service that alerts you when anything new is added to the docket. If you are interested in being notified about certain events only, you can check off any of the following: Record on Appeal Filed, Brief Filed, Calendar Notice (Oral Argument Notice), Any Disposition, or Remittitur Issued.
California Superior (Trial) Court Dockets
Although Lexis provides a civil and criminal docket database covering many California Superior Courts, the information is in an abbreviated format only. Fortunately, some of the Superior Courts have developed more complete docket databases. For example, the Los Angeles Superior Court civil filings are available at the court’s site, but you must first have the docket number in order to search (http://www.lasuperiorcourt.org/civil/). That’s where Lexis comes into play. Search the Lexis database by party name to find the docket number, and then armed with your docket number, proceed to the court’s more complete docket database. In contrast to Los Angeles, at the San Francisco Superior Court Electronic Information Center Web Site (http://www.sftc.org/), you can search by either docket number or party name. Some of the pleadings listed in the San Francisco Superior Court docket sheet are also downloadable.
Los Angeles County Bar Association Leads the Way with a New Superior Court Docket Search Database
The Los Angeles County Bar Association’s (LACBA) new Los Angeles County Superior Court Civil Register database offers attorneys the ability to search dockets in ways that are not available anywhere else. Besides being able to search by party name--which avoids the double look-up described above, you can search by the description of the case type or by the name of the parties, law firms, referees, mediators and arbitrators. And even better, you can search a judge’s record – from the number of peremptory challenges filed against the judge, demurrers he or she sustained with or without leave to amend, summary judgments and injunctions granted or denied, motions for new trials granted or denied, class actions certified, arbitration awards vacated, continuations granted or denied, attorneys’ fees awarded and the average number of days spent in trial (http://www.lacba.org/showpage.cfm?pageid=1589 ).
The database is also useful to learn about a party’s litigation record or an attorney, arbitrator, or mediator’s experience in order to run a background or conflict check. For example, when I am asked to find biographical information about a potential mediator or arbitrator, I very often find that there is little or no information available. However, LACBA’s database, I can create a profile by running a name search to discover the number and type of cases they have heard and also the names of all the firms with which they have been involved.
The name searching function could be improved if party names were in a separate field from attorneys, mediators, and arbitrators. For example, as it now stands, you need to cull through all the results one-by-one to figure out which dockets are actually the ones relating to the attorney you are interested in and not a party with the same name.
LACBA’s Civil Register database was created in January 2002 and includes data for all Los Angeles county courts back to 1997 (except Van Nuys, whose data only goes back to January 9, 2001). The Register includes a brief description of:(1) documents filed; (2) decisions rendered and (3) the proceedings conducted. From here, you can then link directly to the court’s complete docket database. Verdicts or judgments are generally not available online at the Bar’s site, and neither are the documents themselves.
Some researchers are in need of current dockets only, and have little interest in the historical information provided by the Bar. How current is LACBA’s site? In February 2002, LACBA began its first update since August 15, 2001 and at that time, stated that updates would be made on a regular basis from then on (probably every few weeks). However, when I checked back about 2 months later (on April 11, 2002), the most current docket was almost two months old (from Feb. 5, 2002) and when I re-checked the currency of the site on October 17, 2002, I learned that it was current as of August 2002, which is still not useful to those needing to access very recent dockets. The Register will be more useful if the Bar can update more frequently.
Unlimited searching is free to solo attorneys who are LACBA members, but for law firms with more than one member, free searching is only available if every attorney in the firm is a member of the LACBA. While there is an annual subscription option available (from $100-$7,000 depending on firm size), it may be more cost effective for each attorney in your firm to join the Bar.
As you can see, the information that can be gleaned from docket research is useful for more than legal research. Dockets can reveal information that can be deployed for business development purposes, for conflict checking, for creating profiles of attorneys, judges, mediators, etc. and to assist in a myriad of other business decisions to assist you to run your firm.