By Sarah Delano Pavlik
“I’ll see you in court” is a frequent line in movies and television, but there are many courts to choose from. What are they, can you choose and how do you choose?
Federal Courts. Certain cases must be brought in federal court. Cases involving patents (which are issued by the federal government), federal taxes and bankruptcy must be brought in federal court. However, there are different types of federal courts.
Federal District Courts are the “general” federal courts. Springfield is located in the Central District of Illinois. Our District Court is located in the “old Post Office” at Monroe and 6th streets. In order to file a case in federal court, the case must involve a question of federal law or there must be “diversity of citizenship” and the amount in controversy must exceed $75,000. Diversity of citizenship means that the plaintiff and the defendant are not citizens of the same state. The theory behind diversity of citizenship is that a state court may give preference to its citizens over the citizens of another state. Therefore, a “diversity” case may be brought in the “neutral territory” of the federal court. Federal courts don’t have time to handle every little case, however, so the damages being sought must exceed $75,000. If you are sued by a resident of another state in state court and the amount in question exceeds $75,000, you are entitled to have the case “removed” to federal court. The question of diversity may be simple with two individuals involved, but it can also be a very complicated question when dealing with multiple parties or with businesses that operate in many states.
Other federal courts include Bankruptcy Court (also located downtown at the “old Post Office”) and Tax Court. The Tax Court does not hear cases in Springfield. It hears cases in Chicago and some small cases in Peoria. Lawyers must be admitted to practice in the federal District Court and the Tax Court. They are not automatically admitted when they are licensed by the State of Illinois.
State Courts. The majority of lawsuits are brought in state court. In Springfield, our court is the Circuit Court of the Seventh Judicial Circuit. The court house is located at 200 South 9th St. For administrative convenience, there are different “courts” for different types of cases. For example, if the amount in dispute is less than $10,000, the matter may be filed in Small Claims Court. “Discovery” such as depositions is limited in small claims cases, and, therefore, the cases are generally less expensive and are resolved more quickly.
Choice of Law. Sometimes you will have a choice as to where to file a lawsuit. For example, if a person who lives in Cook County injures you in a car accident in Springfield, then you can file the suit in Sangamon County, where the accident took place, or in Cook County, where the defendant resides. Injury cases are “tort” cases, and are governed by the location of the tort and the residence of the parties.
The choice of where to file a lawsuit can determine the outcome of the suit. Do you want to sue a company in a county where it is the largest employer and many people are very loyal to it? Do you have a choice of states in which to file a lawsuit, and is the law of one state more beneficial to you? Where do the witnesses live, and can you make them come to the court of your choice to testify? All of these considerations must be evaluated carefully.
Contract cases may be governed by the residence of the parties or the location of the performance of the contract, but it is more likely that the choice of court will be governed by the contract itself. Most contracts have a “choice of venue” clause. For example, a provision in Google’s Terms of Service provides: “The laws of California, U.S.A., excluding California’s conflict of laws rules, will apply to any disputes arising out of or relating to these terms or the Services. All claims arising out of or relating to these terms or the Services will be litigated exclusively in the federal or state courts of Santa Clara County, California, USA, and you and Google consent to personal jurisdiction in those courts.” By accepting these Terms of Service, you have agreed that you cannot bring suit in Sangamon County, in Illinois, or anywhere other than Santa Clara County, California.
Or, you may have agreed that you cannot go to court at all. It is very common for large corporations to include mandatory arbitration language in their contracts. For example, a Microsoft services agreement provides that you may bring your claim in small claims court in your county of residence or King County, Washington; however, if your case does not qualify for small claims court, you consent to binding arbitration in your county of residence or King County, Washington.
It is not just large corporations that use these “choice of venue” clauses either. You should strongly consider using them in your business contracts to avoid dealing with litigation in inconvenient places. If your business is in Springfield, it will generally be cheaper and easier for you to litigate here rather than somewhere else such as Chicago. By using a choice of venue provision in your contracts, you can control the location of any litigation. Or, binding arbitration may be a good choice for your business.
Sarah Delano Pavlik is an attorney from Springfield.