Is Your Case Better Suited for Federal Court or State Court?

Only certain cases can be brought in federal court or “removed” from state court to federal court, but if you have the choice between bringing or defending your case in federal court or state court, you should be aware of some important differences between the two systems.  

In which court can I sue?

The Connecticut Superior Court is Connecticut’s state court.  Almost any type of case can be brought in state court because it is a court of general subject matter jurisdiction.  In sharp contrast, the federal court in Connecticut, the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, is a court of limited subject matter jurisdiction which can only hear certain types of cases.  For example, the federal court can hear cases in which the plaintiff’s claim is based on federal law (this is known as “federal question” jurisdiction) or where the plaintiff and the defendant reside in different states and the amount in dispute is more than $75,000 (this is known as “diversity” jurisdiction).

If I am sued in state court, can I remove the case to federal court?

Under certain limited circumstances, a defendant in a state court action can “remove” the case to federal court within a limited timeframe.  A defendant can remove a case to federal court if the case could have originally been brought in federal court (see above).  However, if the defendant is a Connecticut resident, he or she cannot remove the case to federal court based on diversity of citizenship, even though the plaintiff could have originally brought the case in federal court.

Which court system is better for my particular case?

In a perfect world, whether you bring or defend your case in federal or state court should not matter.  However, in this imperfect world, where you bring or defend your case can make a significant difference.

Expertise on issues involving federal law: If your claim is based on federal law, it makes sense to bring your claim in federal court because the federal judges and their research clerks may very well have experience with the particular federal law at issue.  State court judges and clerks may not be familiar with the federal law at issue.

Complexity: Complex cases are better suited for federal court because a single judge will oversee the entire case from start to finish and gain an appreciation of its nuances.  This is also true for the judge’s clerks who will be responsible for researching legal issues and preparing draft opinions.  In state court, parties may apply for placement on the Complex Litigation Docket (“CLD”), which is also a one-judge-per-case system.  If the application for placement on the CLD is denied, the parties will remain on the normal civil docket with rotating judges.  In other words, on the regular civil docket, different judges will preside over different parts of your case.  The lack of continuity from judge to judge can be inefficient and frustrating.

Summary judgment: Federal courts are more likely to grant motions for summary judgment than state courts, though practices vary from judge to judge.  In state court, a party has a better chance of convincing a judge that, even if the law is clear, important facts are still in dispute and summary judgment should therefore be denied.  In federal court, judges are more likely to eschew facts that are not truly important to the dispute and grant summary judgment based on the relevant legal principles.  Thus, federal court is seen as a more favorable forum for parties with strong, technical legal claims or defenses, and state court is seen as a more favorable forum for parties with weaker legal claims or defenses but sympathetic facts.

Cost: Federal court is generally more expensive than state court, at least up until the point of jury selection for trial (even though the vast majority of cases settle before jury selection).  In federal court, the parties’ lawyers must consult early on in the case to prepare a comprehensive discovery report.  Moreover, the lawyers and their parties must make initial disclosures of information and documents relevant to the dispute.  There is also more of an emphasis in federal court on electronic discovery, such as computer data.  In state court, the discovery process generally takes place after the parties have pled their claims and defenses and perhaps engaged in some technical motion practice to determine whether such claims and defenses are legally viable.  Thus, federal court litigation carries some significant additional up-front expense that state court litigation often does not.  Also, federal court is known for a more thorough treatment of the legal issues, and the lawyers, therefore, are often required to submit more in-depth briefs.  Federal court, however, is certainly cheaper when it comes to picking a jury for your case.  Federal court judges have the ability to tightly control the jury selection process by limiting the number of questions that attorneys can ask potential jurors and requiring group questioning of potential jurors.  Rule 47 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure gives federal judges the power to question jurors as he or she sees fit.  In stark contrast, jury selection in the state court can be an agonizingly slow process because the Connecticut Constitution provides that “[t]he right to question each juror individually by counsel shall be inviolate.”  In other words, in state court, all of the parties’ attorneys have to right to ask potential jurors as many questions as they deem appropriate.  Jury selection in some state cases can take weeks.  This slow process can amount to several thousands of dollars in additional attorneys’ fees.

Speed:  Neither federal court nor state court is particularly speedy.  According to the most recent publicly available statistics, the median time from case filing through trial in Connecticut federal court is 29.6 months, and the average time from case filing through trial in Connecticut state court is 22.9 months for a judge trial (no jury) and 20.9 months for a jury trial.  Assuming that “median” times and “average” times make for a rough apples-to-apples comparison, it does appear that the state courts are somewhat faster, at least when it comes to cases that are actually tried.  Because federal court cases are generally more complex and less than 5% of cases are actually tried, these statistics should be taken with a grain of salt.  Also, speed in both the Connecticut federal court and state court systems depends on many variables, including judges, specific court location, and the manner in which the case is prosecuted and defended.  Obviously, the strategies deployed by the attorneys can have a significant impact on the speed of the case.  In light of the above, parties generally should not choose federal court or state court based upon a perception of relative speed.

Explore posts in the same categories: General Litigation

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