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So, You Want to Make Federal Case Out of It?

When we were all kids, sometimes, to make the point that too much was being made of a situation, we used to say something to the effect, “you don’t have to make a federal case out of it.” Consequently, many of us grew up believing that a federal lawsuit involved anything with substantial issues or huge sums of money. It is true that our federal courts deal with substantial issues, but so do state courts. What distinguishes the two, and, is there always a choice?

There are essentially two general kinds of cases in which federal jurisdiction may be invoked. First, there is what is called federal question jurisdiction. This form of jurisdiction allows federal courts to entertain civil cases in which a violation of federal law is alleged. For example, federal law protects against various forms of discrimination. So, these types of cases may be heard in federal court.

The second basis on which a case may be allowed to proceed in federal court is called diversity jurisdiction. For diversity jurisdiction to exist, the amount in controversy must be at least $75,000 and the parties must be citizens of different states. The diverse citizenship requirement mandates that no plaintiff in the suit shares the same state citizenship of any defendant in the case. By way of example, a citizen of California who becomes involved in an automobile collision with an out of state driver and suffers personal injuries in excess of $75,000 may file in federal court.

There are indeed circumstances where jurisdiction overlaps and a party has the option of filing in either state court or in federal court. The above example of the California resident, for instance, would present such an option. Further, once a case is commenced in state court, a defending party may perceive that her chances are better in federal court than in state court. If there is a jurisdiction basis for it, in other words, diversity of citizenship and amount in controversy, she may elect to “remove” the case from state court and litigate in the preferred venue of federal court.

Certainly, there are always clear-cut cases where there is no choice to be made concerning where a case can be or must be heard. However, there is also a rich variety of circumstances in which jurisdictional questions can thrive so as to make the possibilities both interesting and challenging. Because it is far from simple in many instances, litigants and their lawyers will want to explore the options before choosing a forum in which to bring or defend against a case.  JP