The federal USDC court system has three main levels: district courts (the trial court), circuit courts which are the first level of appeal, and the Supreme Court of the United States, the final level of appeal in the federal system. There are 94 district courts, 13 circuit courts, and one Supreme Court throughout the country.
Courts in the federal system work differently in many ways than state courts. The primary difference for civil cases (as opposed to criminal cases) is the types of cases that can be heard in the federal system. Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, meaning they can only hear cases authorized by the United States Constitution or federal statutes. The federal district court is the starting point for any case arising under federal statutes, the Constitution, or treaties. This type of jurisdiction is called “original jurisdiction.” Sometimes, the jurisdiction of state courts will overlap with that of federal courts, meaning that some cases can be brought in both courts. The plaintiff has the initial choice of bringing the case in state or federal court. However, if the plaintiff chooses state court, the defendant may sometimes choose to “remove” to federal court.
Cases that are entirely based on state law may be brought in federal court under the court’s “diversity jurisdiction.” Diversity jurisdiction allows a plaintiff of one state to file a lawsuit in federal court when the defendant is located in a different state. The defendant can also seek to “remove” from state court for the same reason. To bring a state law claim in federal court, all of the plaintiffs must be located in different states than all of the defendants, and the “amount in controversy” must be more than $75,000. (Note: the rules for diversity jurisdiction are much more complicated than explained here.)
Federal judges (and Supreme Court “justices”) are selected by the President and confirmed “with the advice and consent” of the Senate and “shall hold their Offices during good Behavior.” Judges may hold their position for the rest of their lives, but many resign or retire earlier. They may also be removed by impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate. Throughout history, fourteen federal judges have been impeached due to alleged wrongdoing. One exception to the lifetime appointment is for magistrate judges, which are selected by district judges and serve a specified term.
The district courts are the general trial courts of the federal court system. Each district court has at least one United States District Judge, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a life term. District courts handle trials within the federal court system – both civil and criminal. The districts are the same as those for the U.S. Attorneys, and the U.S. Attorney is the primary prosecutor for the federal government in his or her respective area.
District court judges are responsible for managing the court and supervising the court’s employees. They are able to continue to serve so long as they maintain “good behavior,” and they can be impeached and removed by Congress. There are over 670 district court judges nationwide.
Some tasks of the district court are given to federal magistrate judges. Magistrates are appointed by the district court by a majority vote of the judges and serve for a term of eight years if full-time and four years if part-time, but they can be reappointed after completion of their term. In criminal matters, magistrate judges may oversee certain cases, issue search warrants and arrest warrants, conduct initial hearings, set bail, decide certain motions (such as a motion to suppress evidence), and other similar actions. In civil cases, magistrates often handle a variety of issues such as pre-trial motions and discovery.
Federal trial courts have also been established for a few subject-specific areas. Each federal district also has a bankruptcy court for those proceedings. Additionally, some courts have nationwide jurisdiction for issues such as tax (United States Tax Court), claims against the federal government (United States Court of Federal Claims), and international trade (United States Court of International Trade).
Once the federal district court has decided a case, the case can be appealed to a United States court of appeal. There are twelve federal circuits that divide the country into different regions. The Fifth Circuit, for example, includes the states of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Cases from the district courts of those states are appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is headquartered in New Orleans, Louisiana. Additionally, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has a nationwide jurisdiction over very specific issues such as patents.
Each circuit court has multiple judges, ranging from six on the First Circuit to twenty-nine on the Ninth Circuit. Circuit court judges are appointed for life by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Any case may be appealed to the circuit court once the district court has finalized a decision (some issues can be appealed before a final decision by making an “interlocutory appeal”). Appeals to circuit courts are first heard by a panel, consisting of three circuit court judges. Parties file “briefs” to the court, arguing why the trial court’s decision should be “affirmed” or “reversed.” After the briefs are filed, the court will schedule “oral argument” in which the lawyers come before the court to make their arguments and answer the judges’ questions.
Though it is rare, the entire circuit court may consider certain appeals in a process called an “en banc hearing.” (The Ninth Circuit has a different process for en banc than the rest of the circuits.) En banc opinions tend to carry more weight and are usually decided only after a panel has first heard the case. Once a panel has ruled on an issue and “published” the opinion, no future panel can overrule the previous decision. The panel can, however, suggest that the circuit take up the case en banc to reconsider the first panel’s decision.
Beyond the Federal Circuit, a few courts have been established to deal with appeals on specific subjects such as veterans claims (United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims) and military matters (United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces).
After the circuit court or state supreme court has ruled on a case, either party may choose to appeal to the Supreme Court. Unlike circuit court appeals, however, the Supreme Court is usually not required to hear the appeal. Parties may file a “writ of certiorari” to the court, asking it to hear the case. If the writ is granted, the Supreme Court will take briefs and conduct oral argument. If the writ is not granted, the lower court’s opinion stands. Certiorari is not often granted; less than 1% of appeals to the high court are actually heard by it. The Court typically hears cases when there are conflicting decisions across the country on a particular issue or when there is an egregious error in a case.
The members of the Court are referred to as “justices” and, like other federal judges, they are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a life term. There are nine justices on the court – eight associate justices and one chief justice. The Constitution sets no requirements for Supreme Court justices, though all current members of the court are lawyers and most have served as circuit court judges. Justices are also often former law professors. The chief justice acts as the administrator of the court and is chosen by the President and approved by the Congress when the position is vacant.
The Central District of California is the largest federal district by population. it includes all five counties that make up the Greater Los Angeles Area. By contrast, New York City and the surrounding metropolitan area are divided between the Southern District of New York (which includes Manhattan and The Bronx) and the Eastern District of New York (which includes Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Nassau County and Suffolk County). New York suburbs in Connecticut and New Jersey are covered by the District of Connecticut and District of New Jersey, respectively.
The Southern District of New York and the Central District of California are the largest federal districts by number of judges, with 28 and 27, respectively.
The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) govern civil procedure (i.e. for civil lawsuits) in United States District (Federal) Courts. The FRCP are promulgated by the United States Supreme Court pursuant to the Rules Enabling Act, and then the United States Congress has 7 months to veto the rules promulgated or they become part of the FRCP. The Court's modifications to the rules are usually based upon recommendations from the Judicial Conference of the United States, the federal judiciary's internal policy-making body. Although Federal (USDC) courts are required to apply the substantive law of the states as rules of decision in cases where state law is in question, the federal courts almost always use the FRCP as their rules of procedure. (States may determine their own rules, which apply in state courts, although most states have adopted rules that are based on the FRCP.)
There are 86 rules in the FRCP, which are grouped into 11 titles. Listed below are the most commonly used categories and rules.
Title I is a sort of "mission statement" for the FRCP; Rule 1 states that the rules "shall be construed and administered to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action." Rule 2 unifies the procedure of law and equity in the federal courts by specifying that there shall be one form of action, the "civil action."
Title II covers commencement of civil suits and includes filing, summons, and service of process. Rule 3 provides that a civil action is commenced by filing a complaint with the court. Rule 4 deals with procedure for issuance of a summons, when the complaint is filed, and for the service of the summons and complaint on the defendants. Rule 5 requires that all papers in an action be served on all parties and be filed with the court. Rule 6 deals with technical issues, which concern the computation of time, and authorizes the courts to extend certain deadlines in appropriate circumstances.
Title III covers pleadings, motions, defenses, and counterclaims. The plaintiff's original pleading is called a complaint. The defendant's original pleading is called an answer.
Rule 8(a) sets out the plaintiff's requirements for a claim: a "short and plain statement" of jurisdiction, a "short and plain statement" of the claim, and a demand for judgment. It also allows relief in the alternative, so the plaintiff does not have to pre-guess the remedy most likely to be accepted by the court.
Rule 8(b) states that the defendant's answer must admit or deny every element of the plaintiff's claim.
Rule 8(c) requires that the defendant's answer must state any affirmative defenses.
Rule 8(d) maintains that each allegation be "simple, concise, and direct" but allows "2 or more statements of a claim or defense alternatively or hypothetically." If a party makes alternative statements, the pleading is sufficient if any one of them is sufficient. A party may state inconsistent (even mutually exclusive) claims or defenses.
Rule 10 describes what information should be in the caption (the front page) of a pleading, but does not explain how such information should actually be organized in the caption. The FRCP is notoriously vague on how papers should be formatted. Most of the details missing from the FRCP are to be found in local rules promulgated by each district court and in general orders by each individual federal judge. For example, federal courts in most West Coast states require line numbers on the left margin on all filings (to match local practice in the courts of the states in which they sit), but most other federal courts do not.
Rule 11 requires all papers to be signed by the attorney (if party is represented). It also provides for sanctions against the attorney or client for harassment, frivolous arguments, or a lack of factual investigation. The purpose of sanctions is deterrent, not punitive. Courts have broad discretion about the exact nature of the sanction, which can include consent to in personam jurisdiction, fines, dismissal of claims, or dismissal of the entire case. The current version of Rule 11 is much more lenient than its 1983 version. Supporters of tort reform in Congress regularly call for legislation to make Rule 11 stricter.
Rule 12(b) describes pretrial motions that can be filed. lack of subject matter jurisdiction lack of personal jurisdiction improper venue insufficient process insufficient service of process failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted; and failure to join a party under Rule 19
The Rule 12(b)(6) motion, which replaced the common law demurrer, is how lawsuits with insufficient legal theories underlying their cause of action are dismissed from court. For example, assault requires intent, so if the plaintiff has failed to plead intent, the defense can seek dismissal by filing a 12(b)(6) motion. "While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact)." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955 (No. 05-1126) (2007) (citations, internal quotation marks and footnote omitted). 12(b)(6) is the second of three procedural "hurdles" a cause of action must surmount before it gets to a trial (the first are the two jurisdictional dismissals, found in 12 (b)(1) and (2), and the third is summary judgment, found in Rule 56). A 12(b)(6) motion cannot include additional evidence such as affidavits. To dispose of claims with insufficient factual basis (where the movant must submit additional facts to demonstrate the factual weakness in the plaintiff's case), a Rule 56 motion for summary judgment is used.
Rules 12(g) and 12(h) are also important because they state that if 12(b)(2)-12(b)(5) motions are not properly bundled together or included in an answer/allowable amendment to an answer, they are waived. Additionally, because 12(b)(1) motions are so fundamental, they may never be waived throughout the course of litigation, and 12(b)(6) and 12(b)(7) motions may be filed at any time until trial ends.
Rule 13 describes when a defendant is allowed or required to assert claims against other parties to the suit (joinder). The law encourages people to resolve all their differences as efficiently as possible; consequently, in many jurisdictions, counterclaims that arise out of the same transaction or occurrence (compulsory counterclaims) must be brought during the original suit, or they will be barred from future litigation (preclusion).
Rule 14 allows parties to bring in other third parties to a lawsuit.
Rule 15 allows pleadings to be amended or supplemented. Plaintiffs may amend once before an answer is filed, a defendant can amend once within 21 days of serving an answer, and if there is no right to amend, seek leave of court ("leave shall be given when justice so requires.")
Rule 17 states that all actions must be prosecuted in the name of the real party in interest, that is, the plaintiff must be person or entity whose rights are at issue in the case.
Rule 18 – Joinder of Claims and Remedies – states that a plaintiff who may plead in a single civil action as many claims as the plaintiff has against a defendant, even if the claims are not related, and may request any remedy to which the law entitles the plaintiff. Of course, each claim must have its own basis for jurisdiction in the court in which it is brought or be subject to dismissal.
Rule 19 – Compulsory Joinder of Parties – if a person who is not a party to the suit is "necessary" to just adjudication of the action, under the criteria set forth in subsection (a), then upon motion of any party that person shall be made a party, served with suit, and required to participate in the action. If the person cannot be made a party for any reason, such as lack of jurisdiction, inability to be located, etc., then the court uses the criteria in subsection (b) to determine if the absent party is "indispensable". If so, the action must be dismissed.
Rule 20 Permissive Joinder of Parties. Joinder of parties at common law was controlled by the substantive rules of law, often as reflected in the forms of action, rather than by notions of judicial economy and trial convenience. Permissive joinder of plaintiffs allows the plaintiffs having an option to join their claims when they were not joint. (Ryder v. Jefferson Hotel Co.)
Rule 22 governs the procedure for interpleader. It allows an interpleader to be brought by a plaintiff who is subject to multiple liability even though 1. the claims or title they are based on lack common origin, are independent and averse and 2. the plaintiff denies any of the claims in whole or part. A defendant exposed to similar liability may also seek interpleader.
Rule 23 governs the procedure for class action litigation. In a class action, a single plaintiff or small group of plaintiffs seeks to proceed on behalf of an entire class who have been harmed by the same conduct by the same defendants. Court approval is required for this procedure to be used. Rule 23.1 governs derivative suits in which a plaintiff seeks to assert a right belonging to a corporation (or similar entity) in which the plaintiff is a shareholder, on behalf of the corporation that is not pursuing the claim itself. Rule 23.2 governs actions by or against unincorporated associations.
Title V covers the rules of discovery. Modern civil litigation is based upon the idea that the parties should not be subject to surprises at trial. Discovery is the process whereby civil litigants seek to obtain information both from other parties and from nonparties (or third parties). Parties have a series of tools with which they can obtain information:
Document requests (Rule 34): a party can seek documents and other real objects from parties and non-parties
Interrogatories (Rule 33): a party can require other parties to answer 25 questions
Requests for admissions (Rule 36): A party can require other parties to admit or deny the truth of certain statements
Depositions (Rule 30): A party can require at most 10 individuals or representatives of organizations to make themselves available for questioning for a maximum of one day of 7 hours, without obtaining leave of court.
Federal procedure also requires parties to divulge certain information without a formal discovery request, in contrast to many state courts where most discovery can only be had by request. Information covered by this initial disclosure is found in Rule 26(a)(1)(A), includes information about potential witnesses, information/copies about all documents that may be used in the party's claim (excluding impeachment material), computations of damages, and insurance information. Information about any expert witness testimony is also required.
Notable exceptions to the discovery rules include impeachment evidence/witnesses, "work product" (materials an attorney uses to prepare for the trial especially documents containing mental impressions, legal conclusions, or opinions of counsel), and experts who are used exclusively for trial prep and will not testify.
FRCP Rule 26 provides general guidelines to the discovery process, it requires the plaintiff to initiate a conference between the parties to plan the discovery process. The parties must confer as soon as practicable after the complaint was served to the defendants — and in any event at least 21 days before a scheduling conference is to be held or a scheduling order is due under Rule 16(b). The parties should attempt to agree on the proposed discovery plan, and submit it to the court within 14 days after the conference. The Discovery Plan must state the parties' proposals on subject of the discovery, limitations on discovery, case management schedule and timing deadlines for each stage of the discovery process, including:
End-date of the discovery. This should be at least 60 days before the trial. The trial target date is usually 6 months to 2 years after the conference.
Amendments to the deadlines for filing pleadings under FRCP 7&15, if any.
Deadline for amending pleadings. Normally it is at least 30 days before the discovery ends.
Deadline for joining claims, remedies and parties (FRCP 18&19). Normally it is at least 30 days before the discovery ends.
Deadline for initial expert disclosures and rebuttal expert disclosures. Normally it is at least 30 days before the discovery ends.
Deadline for dispositive motions. Usually it is at least 30 days after the discovery end-date.
Deadline for Pre-trial order. If any dispositive motions are filed, the Joint Pretrial Order can be filed at least 30 days after the last decision on the merits.
Unless all parties agree otherwise, the parties should submit to each other the initial disclosures under Rule 26(a) within 14 days after the conference. Only after the initial disclosures have been sent, the main discovery process begins which includes: depositions, interrogatories, request for admissions(RFA) and request for production of documents(RFP). As stated above, there is a limitation on number of interrogatories and depositions, but there is no limitation on RFAs and RFPs. Some states, like California, have different limitations set in their Local Rules. FRCP requires that the party to whom the request for Interrogatories, RFA or RFP is directed must respond in writing within 30 days after being served, otherwise the requestor can file a motion to compel discovery and for sanctions.
The scope of discovery remains broad. However, in recent years many parties and judges have been critical of abuses in the discovery process, adding to the costs and length of litigation. Amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, effective December 1, 2015, addresses the scope of discovery allowing a party to obtain any non-privileged information that is relevant to the party's claims or defenses that also is "proportional" to the needs of the case. Rule 26(b)(1) sets forth factors that a court and parties should consider in determining proportionality determination, namely: the importance of the issues at stake to the litigation, the importance of the requested discovery in resolving those issues, the amount in controversy, the parties' relative access to relevant information, the parties' respective resources, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.
Title VI deals generally with the trial of civil actions, although some other topics are also included. Rules 38 and 39 deal with the parties' right to a trial by jury and the procedure for requesting a jury trial instead of a bench trial and trials by an advisory jury. These rules must be construed in light of the Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution, which preserves a right to jury trial in most actions at common law (as opposed to equity cases). Rule 40 deals in general terms with the order in which cases will be scheduled for trial and has little significance in practice.
Rule 41 deals with dismissal of actions. An action may be voluntarily dismissed at any time by the plaintiff prior to the defendant's filing of an Answer or Motion for Summary Judgment. In such an instance, the court retains jurisdiction only to award attorney’s fees or costs (in rare circumstances). With certain exceptions (e.g. class actions), an action may also be dismissed at any time by agreement of the parties (e.g. when the parties reach a settlement). An action may also be involuntarily dismissed by the court if the plaintiff fails to comply with deadlines or court orders.
Rule 42 deals with consolidation of related cases or the holding of separate trials. Rule 43 addresses the taking of testimony, which is to be taken in open court whenever possible. Rule 44 governs authentication of official records.
Rule 45 deals with subpoenas. A subpoena commands a person to give testimony, to produce documents for inspection and copying, or both. Although included in the Chapter headed "trials," subpoenas can also be used to obtain document production or depositions of non-parties to the litigation during the pre-trial discovery stage.
Rule 46 provides that formal "exceptions" to court rulings are no longer necessary so long as a sufficient record is made of the objecting party's position.
The next several rules govern jury trials. Rule 47 provides for the selection of jurors and rule 48 governs the number of jurors in a civil case. A civil jury must consist of between six and twelve jurors (six jurors are presently used in the vast majority of federal civil trials; juries of twelve are still required in federal criminal cases). Rule 49 provides for use of "special verdicts" in jury trials, under which the jury may be asked to respond to specific questions rather than just finding liability or non-liability and determining the amount of the damages, if any. Rule 50 addresses situations in which a case is so one-sided that the court may grant "judgment as a matter of law" taking the case from the jury. Rule 51 governs jury instructions.
Rule 52 provides procedure for the judge to hand down findings and conclusions following non-jury trials. Rule 53 governs masters, who are typically lawyers designated by the court to act as neutrals and assist the court in a case.
Rule 56 deals with summary judgment. It is considered the last gate-keeping function before trial, answering the question of whether the claim could even go to a jury. A successful summary judgment motion persuades the court there is no "genuine issue of material fact" and also that the moving party is "entitled to judgment as a matter of law."
The moving party can show that the disputed factual issues are illusory, can show a lack of genuine issue by producing affidavits or can make a showing through discovery. The movant can point either to the other side's inadequacies or can affirmatively negate the claim.
The moving party has the burden of production; it has to come up with some evidence that there's no genuine issue of material fact. Then the burden shifts to the non-moving party, which has to show that the claim is adequate to let it get to the jury. The non-movant can submit affidavits, depositions, and other material.
The burden shifts again to the moving party, which must say that there's still no genuine issue of material fact. A court grants summary judgment when there is no way the movant can lose at trial. When the moving party is the plaintiff, then it has to show that there's no way that a jury could find against it.
Rule 50 also deals with judgments as a matter of law, however Rule 50 decisions take place after a jury has been empanelled. A motion under Rule 50(a) generally takes place immediately after the opposing party has finished presenting its case and must take place before the case is submitted to the jury. Importantly, to keep open the option of moving for a "judgment notwithstanding the verdict," or "judgment non obstante verdicto" after the jury has returned a verdict, one must file a Rule 50(a) motion. Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the two are not separate motions, the JNOV motion is simply a renewed Rule 50(a) motion. A renewed 50(a) motion must be filed within 28 days of verdict entry.
Rule 50 also covers motions for a new trial. These motions can be granted, denied, conditionally granted, or conditionally denied. Conditional grants or denials cover what will happen if the case is reversed on appeal. For instance, a case that ends with a successfully renewed Rule 50(a) motion to overturn the jury verdict may also include a conditional grant of a new trial. If the losing party wins their appeal, the trial will start over again. A motion for a new trial is a Rule 59(a)(1) motion and is generally filed simultaneously and as an alternative to a renewal of a Rule 50(a) motion.
This Title deals with remedies that may be granted by a federal court – both provisional remedies that may be ordered while the action is pending as well as final relief that may be granted to the winning party at the end of the case.
Rule 64 is captioned "Seizure of Person or Property" and authorizes procedures such as Prejudgment attachment, replevin, and garnishment. In general, these remedies may be awarded when they would be authorized under the law of the state in which the federal court is located – a rare instance in which the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, generally designed to promote uniformity of practice in the federal districts throughout the country, defer to state law.
Rule 65 governs the procedure on applications for preliminary injunctions and temporary restraining orders.
Rule 65.1 addresses security and suretyship issues arising when the court orders a party to deposit security such as a bond.
Rule 66 deals with receivership.
Rule 67 deals with funds deposited in court, such as in interpleader actions.
Rule 68 governs the offer of judgment procedure under which a party may make a confidential offer of settlement in an action for money damages.
Rules 69 and 70 deal with execution of judgments and orders directing a party to take a specific act. Rule 71 deals with the effect of judgments on persons who are not parties to the action.
Chapter IX presently deals with special types of litigation that may take place in the federal courts. A former version of Chapter IX, contained in the original Rules of Civil Procedure, dealt with appeals from a District Court to a United States Court of Appeals. These rules were abrogated in 1967 when they were superseded by the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, a separate set of rules specifically governing the Courts of Appeals.
Rule 71.1 deals with procedure in condemnation actions.
Rule 72 sets forth procedures for matters before United States magistrate judges, including both "dispositive" and "nondispositive" matters, and provides for review of the magistrate judge's decision by a District Judge.
Rule 73 provides that Magistrate Judges may preside over certain trials consistent with statute and upon the consent of all parties.
At present, there are no rules numbered 74 through 76.
Title X. District Courts and Clerks: Conducting Business; Issuing Orders
Title XIII – Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture Actions
Rule A outlines the scope and application of the supplementary rules in respect to certain remedies under admiralty and maritime claims, forfeiture actions in rem, and the procedure in statutory condemnation proceedings analogous to maritime actions.
Rule B deals with attachment and garnishment in in personam actions.
Rule C applies to actions in rem to enforce maritime liens or pursuant to federal statute which provides for a maritime action in rem.
Rule D deals with possessory, petitory, and partition actions in admiralty actions.
Rule E applies to actions in personam with process of maritime attachment and garnishment, actions in rem, and petitory, possessory, and partition actions.
Rule F relates to limitation of liability actions in relation to vessel owners.
Rule G deals with forfeiture actions in rem arising from federal statute.