Jurisdiction and Venue: Selecting the Right Court

Determining the appropriate jurisdiction and venue in which to file a lawsuit can be like trying to figure out a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Some jurisdictional requirements are fairly straightforward, making it easy to file a lawsuit. However, because every state has its own set of rules on where to file a lawsuit, the process of deciding exactly where you should file a lawsuit will depend on the jurisdiction and venue requirements for your state, any other state involved in your conflict (or "controversy" as it is refer to in legal terms), and the individual facts applicable to your case.

Finding the Right Jurisdiction

Jurisdiction is the authority of the court to resolve a controversy. Every state outlines its general jurisdictional requirements in rules of civil procedure. In addition to state rules, you may need to review federal rules of civil procedure as well. As the plaintiff, it is your burden to show that a particular court has jurisdiction over your controversy or lawsuit. Federal courts have jurisdiction over matters involving controversies between the states, questions of federal law, and controversies between parties from different states in which the amount involved exceeds $50,000. Other matters are limited to jurisdiction at the state court level. 

In addition to general jurisdiction, you must also show that the court you selected has personal jurisdiction over the respondent in your case. Even if you live in California and a lawsuit would be more convenient for you file in California, if you cannot show that the responding party has substantial contacts with California, you may have to go elsewhere to file your lawsuit. The test for establishing personal jurisdiction is very fact-based, depending on the parties and the controversy. The more factors you can demonstrate that connect a defendant to a particular jurisdiction, the more success you're likely to have with petition to challenge the jurisdiction.

Once you find the right type of court and right state to file in, your puzzle is still not finished. Your next step is to decide which court within your state can handle your lawsuit. State courts typically have two or three tier systems. Each system has a threshold dollar amount, or authority based upon subject matter. For example, small claims courts might have jurisdiction over controversies less than $5,000, municipal courts for controversies less than $25,000 and superior courts for controversies in excess of $25,000. In addition, there may be rules which establish special courts for certain matters (traffic courts, family law courts, juvenile law, landlord/tenant court, and probate court).

Finding the Appropriate Venue

The appropriate venue for a trial is the court geographically close to the parties involved and/or the controversy. Venue is usually based upon residence of the defendant, although with some actions the venue may be based on the plaintiff's residence. Some states set up their venue rules by counties or parishes. To make venue rules more interesting, some states have enacted mandatory venue rules for certain types of lawsuits. Mandatory venue means that regardless of the parties' potential preferences, the lawsuit must be filed in the county where the statute specifically provides that it should.

Getting Legal Help

Establishing jurisdictional requirements and pinpointing where to file your lawsuit are extremely important matters. If you file your cause in the wrong court, you could lose the expenses associated with your filing fee, face a motion to challenge or dismiss your case, and most importantly, it could affect your statute of limitations if you are forced to dismiss and re-file. Because the potential consequences for choosing the wrong court for your lawsuit are expensive and severe, you may want to consult with a trial attorney or civil attorney. A litigation attorney can review the facts of your case and give you pointers on exactly what jurisdiction and venue is appropriate for you to file a lawsuit.