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It should be noted by readers that Absinthe is not a lawyer, and anything posted in this blog should not be used as a substitute for professional advice from a lawyer

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  Wednesday, April 02, 2008

I wrote a post over a year ago on how to access court records for any federal lawsuit (civil or criminal) filed in the US. RadioUserland has since "disappeared" that post, so here I am going to give everyone the information again, because if you are fighting a discrimination lawsuit it really helps to be as informed as possible as to:

  1. What kind of cases are out there that are like yours.  If you haven't yet filed your own lawsuit, you can get a good idea of how to compose a well written complaint by looking at cases that won, and cases that lost.  Cases pretty much never win or settle without a well written complaint that thoughtfully and carefully describes the events that took place.  You should be a very active participant in writing your complaint...don't let your attorney write the whole thing for you, and insist on being the final editor. 
  2. Look at complaints of succesful lawsuits and note that they are almost always written in point-by-point format with each point giving one small item of information. They also usually have a point-by-point pre-amble of information that introduces the cast of characters and gives background to the events.  You'll see once you start looking at various cases that some (many?) complaints are almost incomprehensible and were clearly written by the attorney alone.  I asked my attorney if I could try to write my own complaint and he let me.  My attorney liked it, and didn't change a word except to add the legal boiler plate to the beginning and end.  My case is complicated by the fact that I was based at Fermilab, and the work environment there is extremely unique and hard to explain to someone who is not a particle physicist. Only now, after four years of representing me, is my attorney figuring out exactly how the world of academic particle physics works.  There was no way he could have written my complaint for me and made it correct and/or comprehensible.
  3. You can find out if anyone else has filed discrimination lawsuits against your university in recent years. And if so, read the complaints and find out how the plaintiffs were treated by the university (were they retaliated against? did the university ignore their original complaints?), and how their lawsuit progressed (ie; does the university seem to settle early, or always fight to the bitter end)?   You can and should try to contact these plaintiffs to talk to them about their experiences.  I did, and all of them were happy to hear from me and happy to talk to me about their experiences fighting their own lawsuit.  If you can't find the plaintiff via Google or 411 or whatever, try reaching them by writing them a letter via their former attorney.  Don't be shy about doing this because the information you will glean is like gold. 
  4. Also, if discrimination lawsuits were filed against your university, and were either won by the plaintiff or settled, the name of the attorney representing the plaintiff is also like gold if you have yet to file your own lawsuit and you are in the process of looking for an attorney.  I cannot stress this enough.  Rare is the employment attorney who is experienced in the world of academic employment and the special laws (like Title IX) that can pertain to it, and even rarer is the attorney who will win such cases for you.

The secret to obtaining all this information is the online Public Access to Court Records system (PACER for short). Lawsuits are public record, therefore the US government has set up this system to allow any member of the general public to browse through the documents associated with any federal lawsuit.  Using PACER is pretty easy (ie; I am no genius, and I figured out how to navigate it myself).  There is a small charge of 8 cents per page for viewing documents, but I can tell you that the stuff you learn by browsing through PACER is well worth every penny you spend.  Over the past 4 years I think I have racked up less than $150 in fees, which is less than the cost of 1/2 an hour of my attorney's time.  And I have read and downloaded a lot of documents from PACER.

Getting started with PACER requires you to set up an account giving them your name and a credit card number so that they can charge you for the documents you view.  You can do that by going here.  They in turn will supply you with a username and password.

Once you get your username and password, you go to the PACER login page here

Once you are logged in, it will take you to a page called the Pacer Service Center.  Click on "Civil" under the Search column, and it will take you to a search GUI that will allow you to search for all lawsuits filed in any federal court in the country. There are ways to narrow the search.  For instance, there is a box you can fill in to narrow the search to Nature of Suit number 442, which is a civil rights employment lawsuit (see this document for details). You can also narrow your search to lawsuits filed in federal court in northern Illinois (for instance), and also search by date. And of course you can search by party name.

Be creative in spelling when searching by party name if you are trying to find lawsuits filed against a particular university.  For instance, lawsuits filed against the University of Texas at Austin might be filed under that name, or the University of Texas, or UTA or UT Austin, or whatever.  Try out all kinds of searches if it looks even remotely possible the lawsuit might be filed under any of a variety of names.  Lawsuits against Fermilab are particularly hard to track down because they can be against the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Fermilab, the Universities Research Association (the organization that runs Fermilab), the URA, or even potentially the Department of Energy.

When you search for cases and it comes up with a list, you can click on the link of ones that look promising.  It will then provide you with a query list for that lawsuit that includes items like Case Summary and History/Documents.  Clicking on the Case Summary link will tell you whether the case is still ongoing, or in appeal, or was dismissed, or was settled (or whatever).  It will also give you the contact information for the attorneys for all parties, and also the names of the plaintiff(s) and defendant(s) in the lawsuit.  Like I said before, the plaintiff attorney information for cases that successfully won at trial or settled is like gold.  That is probably an attorney you want on your side.  You can even try to track down the plaintiff and give him/her a call if you want to find out how they felt about their attorney.  Finding a good attorney is crucial to a successful resolution to your lawsuit.

If you click on the History/Documents link for a particular lawsuit you will be given a list of all the documents that have been filed in the case.  Cases filed after 2002 usually have a complete list of documents available in PDF format.  You can click on the links to each document and download the PDF (to save money, I download most files to my computer so that I don't have to pay to read them a second time should I ever need to read the document again).  The cost is 8 cents a page to view the documents.

Now you all know as much as I do as to how to go about accessing federal court records.  I hope the information is helpful!


6:48:20 PM    comment []

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