Tutorial: Civil Court Lawsuits
Lawsuits are filed in civil courts, and the documents filed in these civil cases are presumed to be open to the public.
Civil court lawsuits include many different types of filings including divorce cases (often called "dissolution of marriage" or "family law" cases) and probate actions to settle a deceased person's estate.
There also are several different types of civil courts - small claims courts, county superior courts, federal courts and appeals courts.
Each civil court will have an alphabetical name index to search for lawsuits filed against a person or company, or lawsuits filed by a person or company, in that court. Courts also post calendars listing cases coming up before judges in different courtrooms.
Many courts, especially superior and appeals courts, are putting their indexes online. In some cases the courts are even posting electronic copies of court documents filed in the cases that you can view on the website for the court.
Reporters' Use of Lawsuits in Stories
Here's a story in which reporters used a lawsuit to help verify information from an anonymous tipster that an Oakland City Council member had financial troubles and had to pay off a court judgment:
Councilwoman Faces Probes of Alleged Kickback (scroll down to the 12th paragraph for the description of the tipster's allegations and then several paragraphs later the civil lawsuit concerning the council member's financial problems)
Here's a story disclosing that a company that had claimed to be a minority business to get government contracts actually was financed and managed by a white-owned company. The story was based on a lawsuit the white-owned company filed against its minority partner because of a financial dispute:
FBI probe focuses on minority builder (scroll down to the 6th paragraph for the description of the civil lawsuit)
Each court will have a civil court clerk's office that keeps an alphabetical index of the names of people, businesses and organizations that have filed lawsuits or have had lawsuits filed against them in that court.
Thus there will be one index of lawsuits filed in each small claims court, another index in each county superior court, and still other indexes for federal courts and for the various state and federal appellate courts.
You need to check each index at each court to find all the legal actions in which a person or company might be involved. There is no publicly available master index of all the legal actions in all the different courts.
As a general rule, most reporters will first check the index for a county superior court, because that is where lawsuits involving significant financial disputes are most often filed.
The superior court lawsuits also include divorce actions.
A separate index sometimes is kept for probate actions concerning people who have died (such as dividing up the deceased person's estate).
At each court, the indexes usually are on computer terminals. But for older cases, there may be sets of microfiche covering different periods of time in which lawsuits were filed.
The alphabetical name index on the computer terminal or microfiche will usually include the names of the plaintiffs (the parties filing lawsuits) and the defendants (the parties being sued) in a single index. So there won't be a separate index for looking up plaintiffs, and a separate index for looking up defendants - they'll all be in the same index.
Sample name index:
(click on the Name Search Query link and then type in a name to see what information is available in the index)
Each listing for a case in the index usually will include:
- the names of the two main parties - plaintiff and defendant - involved in the lawsuit
- a notation as to which party is the plaintiff and which party is the defendant (such as p and d, or plt and def)
- the date the lawsuit was filed
- an abbreviation for the general legal description of the type of lawsuit (personal injury, breach of contract, dissolution of marriage, etc.)
- the case number for each lawsuit
Some courts now have electronic copies of the court documents, and you can view the records on a computer terminal at the clerk's office. In some instances, the documents will be on the same computer as the index of lawsuits, and the index will link to those documents.
In other courts, you'll need to copy down the case number and present it to a clerk, who usually will ask you to fill out an order form in order to retrieve the case file.
When you view a case file, the documents in it usually will be in reverse chronological order, with the most current document at the top or beginning of the file. A file for a complex cases probably will have multiple volumes of documents, also in reverse chronological order.
Calendars and Dockets
Each civil court clerk keeps a "calendar" or “docket” of pending cases that are coming up for some kind of court hearing.
These calendars usually list the names of the plaintiffs and defendants, the case number, the date and time a court appearance is going to be held, and the judge’s courtroom (or “department”) where the hearing is being held.
There usually are daily calendars of what’s happening in court that day, and advance calendars that list cases coming up in the next several days or a week, or even further into the future.
The calendars are organized by the names of the judges in the court, listing after each judge's name the cases they will be hearing. The calendars are not organized by the names of all the plaintiffs or defendants.
As with the name indexes, there will be one docket or calendar in each small claims court, another in each county superior court, and still more at federal courts and at the various state and federal appellate courts.
To see what a judge's calendar looks like, go to this page and click on a calendar icon next to any of the judges names.
Alameda County Superior Court
Contra Costa County Superior Court
Common Court Documents
Civil lawsuit files contain a wide variety of documents and information depending on the nature of the actions.
In superior court and federal court, the documents filed in a civil case commonly will include:
- Civil Complaint
- Proof of Service
- Answer to the Complaint
- Attorneys' Names
- Amended Complaint
- Memorandum of Points and Authorities
- Restraining Orders and Injunctions
- Dismissal, Judgment or Verdict
This is the initial civil lawsuit that summarizes the plaintiff's allegations against the defendant and what damages are being sought against the defendant.
Often attached to the complaint are exhibits, which are documents that support the allegations in the lawsuit.
Thus a copy of a contract might be attached in a dispute over whether someone performed what was required in the contract. Or declarations by the plaintiff or the plaintiff's attorney might be attached, in which they describe the circumstances that prompted the lawsuit.
Sample civil complaints:
- Courtney Love Sued Over Rehab Bill, The Smoking Gun
- J.D. Salinger Sues Over "Catcher" Sequel, The Smoking Gun
- Couple Sues Google Over "Street View", The Smoking Gun
When a lawsuit is filed, a notice must be "served" on (that is, given to) the defendant, usually by a prefessional "process server" hired by the plaintiff (the plaintiff cannot serve the notice, and instead must use some other third party to do it).
A "proof of service" document is then filed in the court case stating when the defendant was served with a notice of the lawsuit and the address at which the defendant was served (usually a business address).
When other documents subsequently are filed in a lawsuit, those similarly must be served on the defendant or plaintiff and proof of service notices filed in the court case.
Some of the documents can be served on the other party by mail, but the initial complaint usually has to be served on the defendant in person.
This is a document filed by the defendant responding to the allegations of the plaintiff.
This often is just a blanket denial of all the plaintiff's claims, at least in the initial response.
This is a common response to a civil lawsuit in which rather than providing a detailed denial of the facts of the case, the defendant instead alleges there are no legal grounds for the lawsuit and it therefore should be dismissed.
The names of the attorneys for the plaintiffs and the defendants will be listed at the top of the various court filings.
The original civil complaint will list the name of the attorney for the plaintiff. The answer to the complaint will list the attorney for the defendant.
Included in both cases will be the attorneys' contact information.
These listings for the attorneys will be repeated at the top of subsequent court filings. The names of attorneys may change if one party or another substitutes a new attorney. In that cast a notice of a change of attorney also will be in the court file.
An amended complaint often is filed as a case progresses.
An amended complaint updates the original complaint and may add or drop causes of action, or add the names of additional defendants.
You'll need to carefully compare an amended complaint to the original complaint to see what has changed.
Additional amended complaint also may be filed - a second amended complaint, a third amended complaint, and so on - each of which will update the previously amended complaint and state the most current allegations in the case.
These documents sometimes are filed by one or more of the defendants in a case. In a cross-complaint the defendant usually blames someone else for whatever was alleged by the plaintiff, and the defendant claims he/she was harmed by that person's actions.
These complaints are filed against "cross defendants," who may be other third parties or even the original plaintiff.
Thus if a customer at a restaurant sues the restaurant because he got sick after eating there, the restaurant may file a cross-complaint against the company that supplied the food, alleging that company was responsible for the customer's illness and the restaurant was harmed by the food supply company's actions.
These cross-complaints do not become separate legal cases. They remain part of the original lawsuit and are handled by the same judge dealing with the original lawsuit.
Sample cross complaints:
- Sample cross complaint in personal injury case (pdf)
- California State Controller Files Cross-Complaint Charging DPA Pay Letter is Illegal (pdf) (see the background on this case)
This are sworn statements submitted in support of the original civil complaint, answers to complaints, amended complaints, etc. They often are by the parties to the lawsuit, describing their first-hand knowledge of the facts of the case.
- Sample declaration (pdf file)
These are written questions submitted by one party in the suit that are answered under oath by the other party. They are part of the "discovery" process in which both sides query the other to try to unearth the facts of the case.
These are interviews conducted under oath of people involved in the case. They also are part of the discovery process.
The depositions, transcripts of which are made by a court reporter, often contain a lot of biographical information on the people in the case, as well as questions and answers about the allegations in the lawsuit.
Depositions are conducted by attorneys for the plaintiffs or attorneys for the defendants in a civil action. The people deposed usually are the plaintiffs, the defendants, and relevant witnesses or experts.
In the public court record you usually will only find official notices that depositions were taken or perhaps excerpts of some of the depositions. So you may have to ask the attorneys involved in the case if they'll let you see a complete transcript of a deposition.
- Paris Hilton, American Treasure, The Smoking Gun
This is a document filed in connection with legal issues that come up in a case as it progresses.
While they are mainly arguments about legal points, they also often include succinct summaries of the facts of the case, laying out clearly what exactly is in dispute.
These are documents signed by a judge that order one side or the other in a civil case to not engage in a particular action.
A restraining order, often called a temporary restraining order or TRO, is usually granted by a judge when immediate action is needed to prevent one of the parties in a lawsuit from doing something that would harm the other (this could be physical harm or something that would adversely affect the civil case).
An injunction involves a more deliberative process in which immediate action is not necessary, and both sides thus are given the opportunity to argue more fully whether the injunction is warrranted or not.
A judge may grant a preliminary injunction while a case is ongoing, or a permanent injunction, usually after a case has reached a conclusion. In either case, the party that is the subject of the injunction is "enjoined" or barred from engaging in a particular action.
- Sample Temporary Restraining Order (pdf)
- Sample Temporary Restraining Order - Domestic Violence (pdf)
- Sample Preliminary Injunction (pdf) (this is part of an Order Appointing Receiver filing. Go to the end of the document to see the preliminary injunction portion)
These are the documents filed in the court record describing the final outcome of a case (unless it is appealed).
These judgments or dismissals can take several forms:
1. A default judgment by a judge in favor of the plaintiff, if the defendant fails to contest the case.
2. A dismissal by a judge of the plaintiff's case, if the judge concludes the plaintiff's case is without merit.
- Sample Dismissal - Judge Bounces "Birther" Lawsuit, Smoking Gun
3. An out-of-court settlement of a case, in which the plaintiff and defendant agree to a settlement. This is a very common resolution, and a dismissal notice will be filed by one of the parties stating the case has been settled.
Settlement dismissals usually contain little or no information about the details of the settlement. You'll have to check with the attorneys involved to see if they'll disclose the terms of the settlement.
A dismissal also can take one of two forms:
- With prejudice - which means the plaintiff is barred from filing a new lawsuit based on the same claim.
- Without prejudice - which means the plaintiff can still file a new lawsuit based on the same claim, such as if the defendant does not carry through on the terms of the settlement.
4. A jury verdict or a judgment by a judge after a civil trial. Thus the jury or judge will rule in favor of either the plaintiff or the defendant, or often a mix of the two - with rulings in favor of some of the plaintiff's claims in a lawsuit, and against other claims in the lawsuit.
The legal standard for a verdict in a civil case is that the plaintiff must have a preponderance of the evidence supporting his/her claim for the jury or judge to rule in favor of the plaintiff.
In the case of a jury trial in a civil case, usually 12 people are selected for a jury, and three fourths of them must agree on a verdict.
A civil trial can be held before a judge, rather than a jury, if both parties agree. This is often referred to as a court trial.
In the case of either a trial by a jury or a trial by a judge, a judgment form will be filed in the court record stating how the jury or judge ruled on each of the individual allegations (which are called "causes of action") in the lawsuit.
The form also will list the damages awarded, if any, to the plaintiffs.
There are usually two types of damages awarded in a civil case:
- Actual damages - the actual monetary losses suffered by a plaintiff.
- Punitive damages - a monetary penalty punishing the defendant for malicious or egregious conduct.
- Sample judgment (pdf)
Files in a Judge's Chambers
At precisely the moment when reporters most need access to criminal or civil court records, they'll probably discover that the records are not in the court clerk's office.
That's because a few days before a hearing in a criminal or civil case, the public case file is usually sent to the judge who is hearing the case. The file then likely won't be returned to the court clerk's office until the day after the hearing.
So when a criminal or civil court file clerk tells you a case file is in a judge's chambers (in superior court they'll often refer to the "department" that represents the judge's courtroom), you'll need to go to the judge's office to see if you can look at the file.
Politely ask the judge's clerk if you can view the file in the judge's office. If the judge is in court, don't try to interrupt a court proceeding - wait until there's a recess.
Sometimes the clerk will allow you to view the file, sometimes not, depending on whether the judge needs access to the file. The requirements of court procedures trump the right of the public to view the files, so you have no recourse here other than just asking.
Some civil courts have put court case documents online, so you may be able to review them on a computer terminal at the court clerk's office or remotely via the court's website.
Or you can try contacting the attorneys for the plaintiffs or defendants to see if they'll let you review their copies of records filed in the court case.
But the best advice is to plan ahead and try to look at the court documents when they're available well in advance of a court hearing.
While access to court records is free, there are no limits on what courts can charge for making copies of the records. State laws like the California Public Records Act that regulate copying charges by public agencies do not apply to the courts.
So be prepared to pay 50 cents, 75 cents, $1 or even more per page.
Some courts have self-service photocopy machines. So be sure to bring lots of change when you go to a court to look at records.
And don't ever remove files from the clerk's office.
In California, civil lawsuits involving state laws are handled in courts on the county level.
These courts, which are often referred to as state courts or trial courts, are of two types:
- Small claims courts for disputes involving lesser amounts of money
- Superior courts for lawsuits involving more significant amounts of money
Small Claims Courts
Lawsuits in which the amount of claimed damages is $10,000 or less can be filed in a small claims court in California.
Each county may have several small claims courts serving different areas of the county.
These small claims courts are designed to process cases expeditiously and at low cost.
Thus the parties in the case represent themselves in small claims court and can't have attorneys presenting their cases for them.
The cases are decided by a judge, not a jury.
If the person who files a small claims case loses, they cannot appeal.
But the person being sued can appeal the case to superior court
In most legal disputes in Calfornia, the lawsuits are filed in a superior court.
Each county usually has one main superior court.
In larger counties there often will be branches of the superior court serving different parts of the county.
Counties used to have another layer of courts called municipal courts that generally handled less significant cases than the superior courts, such as cases in which $25,000 or less in damages were being sought. But between 1998 and 2001 municipal courts were phased out and merged into superior courts in California.
However, superior courts still split out "limited cases" - those in which $25,000 or less in damages are being sought - to be processed in particular courtrooms, thus retaining a distinction similar to the old one between superior and municipal courts.
Federal courts - called U.S. District Courts - handle civil cases involving issues of federal law.
Examples might be federal discrimination laws or anti-trust or international trade laws.
There usually are a number of U.S. District Courts in larger states, each responsible for a particular geographic area of the state.
And within each district court there may be several branches handling different geographic areas within the district.
Thus there's a U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, which handles cases for the San Francisco Bay Area and counties elsewhere in Northern California. This court in turn has branches in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and Eureka.
There also is a U.S. Tax Court for cases in which people or corporations are disputing a claim by the IRS that they owe taxes.
There are various appeals courts to which rulings in lower trial courts can be appealed.
There are appeals courts on the state level, up to a state supreme court, for cases that involve state law and that originated in county superior courts.
There are appeals courts on the federal level, up to the U.S. Supreme Court, for cases that involve federal law and that originated in federal district courts.
Appeals Courts in California
For cases involving state law, the appeals court in Northern California is the California First Appellate District.
For federal cases, the appeals court in Northern California is the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Cases involving state law also can be appealed up to the California Supreme Court.
Federal cases, or state cases that raise federal constitutional issues, can be appealed up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Appeals Court Records
Each appeals court will keep a set of records for cases appealed to it.
The records at an appeals court will include:
- the appeal filed by either the plaintiff or the defendant from the trial court, and the response to the appeal by the other side
- any motions filed by either side with the appeals court
- the final decision by the appeals court
Transcripts of arguments made in person before the appeals court by attorneys in the case may not be available in the public case file. You can ask either the plaintiff's attorney or the defendant's attorney if you can review their copies, or pay the court reporter to make you a copy.
Generally appeals concern conflicting interpretations of the law, rather than the particular facts of a case.
The court file for the original case that produced the appeal also will include a notation that an appeal was filed, along with a subsequent memo indicating the result of the appeal.
State civil courts, such as superior courts, across the country are starting to put their indexes to cases online, including many in California.
Some superior courts - such as Alameda County and San Francisco County in the Bay Area - are even posting electronic copies of documents filed in civil cases.
U.S. District Courts are less likely to have much information on their websites. That's because they use a proprietary electronic system called PACER to which people, especially lawyers, pay a fee to subscribe and see the index of federal court cases or documents filed in those cases.
Appeals courts at both the state and federal level frequently post on their websites indexes of cases they are hearing and the judges' final rulings in many cases.
You need to check the website for each individual court to see what's available.
Also look for special sections of court websites where some courts have posted filings on cases that have attracted a great deal of public attention.
State Courts Online
To find webites for courts in different states, including appeals courts, you can use several online directories that track them:
Black Book Online
Pick a state and then a county.
This site has pull-down menus you use to locate online dockets and rules at state and federal courts around the country, as well as electronic copies of the forms the courts use.
California Courts Online
To locate websites for state courts in California, including appeals courts, there are several directories that track them. They include:
Black Book Online
Alameda County Superior Court Online
The Alameda County Superior Court has a website with Four options for searching for civil court cases:
- Pending Case Hearings Search - searchable by plaintiff or defendant, but only for cases with hearings in the next 5 day
- Case Number Search - search by case file number
- Case Filing Date Search - search by a date to see what cases were filed that day
- Judges' Calendars Search - for cases being heard in the next 30 days, seachable by court and judge
There is no way to search for free by the names of people or companies to locate cases in which they are plaintiffs of defendants. Alameda County is charging a fee for such a search, and also charges a fee to view some of the court records online.
The main Alameda County Superior Court website is:
Alameda County Superior Court has a Find Your Court Date database of docket information on current criminal and civil cases.
It is searchable by the name of a plaintiff or defendant. Go to:
The database provides information on up to the next five days of court hearings (be sure to check the circle next to Today plus the next four court dates to search the calendar for more than just one day).
Your search results will include the date and time of a hearing, the "department" or courtroom in which the hearing will be held and the civil case file number.
You then can use the case file number at the Case Number Search page described below to access court documents in the case.
To see how the Alameda County Find Your Court Date database works and what's available, try a search for just a common last name, such as Smith (and be sure to check the Today plus the next four court dates button).
Alameda County Superior Court has a web page where, if you know the file number for a civil case, you can search for electronic copies of documents filed in civil court cases. Go to:
At that page click on the link for Case Number Search.
There you can look up court files if you know the file number for a case. This site is not searchable by the name of a plaintiff or defendant.
When you've selected a particular case, to see what documents are available for viewing onilne in the case, click on the Register of Actions tab (a fee is charged to view some of the files).
You also can locate a case by the date it was filed, if you know the date. Go to:
At that page click on the link for Public Reports (Filings) Search.
Then click on a case number in that list to get more information on that particular case.
Then to see what documents are available for viewing onilne in the case, click on the Register of Actions tab (a fee is charged to view some of the files).
Alameda County Superior Court has an online database of court calendars that list the cases being heard by different judges.
The calendars are for cases being heard in the next 30 days.
At that page, click on the link for:
You'll get a page where you can pick a courthouse and then pick a particular judge.
At the page for a judge, you'll see listings for the different types of civil proceedings the judge will be hearing on different dates and at different times.
Click on one of those headings to get a list of specific cases being heard on that particular day and time.
Then click on a case number in that list to get more information on that particular case.
Then to see what documents are available for viewing onilne in the case, click on the Register of Actions tab (a fee is charged to view some of the files).
Alameda County Superior Court offers a paid service for searching by names of people or companies to locate cases in which they are plaintiffs of defendants. Go to:
At that page, click on the link for:
Contra Costa County Superior Court Online
Contra Costa County Superior Court has an Open Access website at which you can search:
- Name Index - for plaintiffs or defendants in civil cases
- Judges' Calendars - for cases currently being heard by each by court and judge
The main court web page is at:
The Open Access site for searching the name index or the judges' calendars is:
Scroll down and click on the OPEN ACCESS link.
At the new page, click on the Open Access - Civil button, then click on the Log On/Choose Different Court button. At the new page pick one of the superior court branches and then click on the log on button.
At the Open Access page click on the Open Access - Civil button, then click on the Log On/Choose Different Court button. At the new page pick one of the superior court branches and then click on the log on button. At the new page click on the Name Search button.
Type the name of a plaintiff or defendant into the search boxes. Then select a case from the list.
You'll get a list of court hearings and documents filed in the case. The court documents themselves are not yet available online, so you still have to write down the case number and go to the courthouse to view the documents.
At the Open Access page click on the Open Access - Civil button, then click on the Log On/Choose Different Court button. At the new page pick one of the superior court branches and then click on the log on button. At the new page click on the Calendar Search button.
Select a date from the calendar and select the "department" or courtroom for a particular judge (see the judicial officers web page created the Contra Costa County Bar Association for a list of superior court judges and the "department" to which each is assigned).
You'll get a list of the cases being heard by that judge on the selected date.
San Francisco County Superior Court Online
The San Francisco County Superior Court has its civil lawsuit index available online, along with electronic copies of documents filed in many cases.
The main court web page is:
The searchable database for finding court cases and documents is at the page for:
You can do a Name Search there by the name of a plaintiff or defendant, or search by the case number.
After you've searched for a particular case, you'll see a list of the documents filed in the case.
The documents that can be downloaded onto your computer for viewing will be noted with a View link. The documents are in pdf format.
San Mateo County Superior Court Online
San Mateo County Superior Court has an online database of both civil and criminal court filings.
It is searchable by the name of a person. Go to:
Listings will include the date the case was filed and the case number.
You also can get a list of actions or documents filed in the case, although electronic copies of the documents are not available online.
Federal Courts Online
To find websites for various federal courts, go to the U.S. Courts site:
Some federal court websites have calendars or indexes of their cases on their websites.
But very few federal courts have put any of the documents in the court cases on their websites (the main exceptions are appeals court judges' final rulings, which are frequently on the appeals court websites).
Instead most federal courts use a proprietary electronic system called PACER to which people, especially lawyers, pay a fee to subscribe and see the index of federal court cases or access electronic copies of documents filed in those cases. See Jonathan Dube's Web Tips column about PACER at the Poynter Institute website.
U.S. District Court for Northern California
The U.S. District Court for Northern California in San Francisco has a website that has an index of recently filed cases (although not the documents that were filed) and of cases of public interest (which do include some of the court documents). Those are at this web page:
The U.S. District Court for Northern California also has calendars for its judges online. Go to:
But you can't search the calendars by the name of a plaintiff or defendant. And the judges listed handle both civil and criminal cases.
So unless you know which judge is handling a particular case, it's very hard to use the online calendars to track down a case. And documents in the cases also are not on the website.
People or corporations who want to dispute a claim by the IRS that they owe taxes do so in U.S. Tax Court.
At the Tax Court's website you can search by the name of a person or corporation to see if they have a case pending:
About this Tutorial
This tutorial was originally written by Paul Grabowicz for students in his Computer Assisted Reporting class, and later modified for public use.
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