Do Federal Courts Handle Civil Cases?

If you’re tuned into the news often enough, you’re likely familiar with people, companies, and organizations facing prosecution for federal crimes.  Headlines, intended to capture people’s attention, mention indictments and criminal sentences.  Even entire television shows are based upon the work of the FBI and other government agencies.  When most people think of federal court, they think of major criminal cases.  However, have you ever wondered what types of civil cases end up in federal court?   

There are many types of civil cases brought each year in federal courts across the nation.  They involve issues spanning the range from negligence actions to major disputes about constitutional rights.  However, unlike criminal cases, individuals and businesses involved in federal civil lawsuits are not facing jail time. To the contrary, what’s on the line for them is their reputation, compensatory damages, potential restrictions (injunctive relief), and ability to conduct business regularly.

According to the United States Courts, federal civil suits involve a legal dispute between two or more parties. Generally, the federal courts have jurisdiction over limited types of cases.  They include cases that raise a “federal question” that involves the United States Government, the Constitution, or other federal laws. Federal courts also oversee cases involving “diversity of citizenship” disputes where each party is not from the same state or country, and the claim exceeds $75,000.

Common Types of Federal Civil Cases

Common Types of Federal Civil Cases

There are many types of cases that end up in federal court.  Among the most common are the following:

  • Cases challenging the constitutionality of a law or governmental action;
  • Cases brought by individuals alleging violation of their constitutional rights;
  • Cases alleging violation of employment rights under federal law;
  • Cases brought under a specific federal law;
  • Cases involving major business disputes between parties from different states;
  • Cases alleging negligence (for example, against the Veterans Administrations for medical malpractice) against the federal government or its employees;
  • Cases brought by the federal government against individuals, businesses and local governments alleging violation of federal laws. 

What To Expect In A Federal Lawsuit

All civil cases are not eligible to been heard in federal courts. Generally, the federal courts will only hear civil suits if they fit into the following categories:

  • The United States government is a party in the suit;
  • The civil suit involves violations of federal laws, constitutional rights or treaties;
  • Civil disputes between two parties from different states or another country;
  • Cases dealing with copyright or patent infringement or maritime laws.

While the United States Supreme Court is the highest federal court in the land, the vast majority of federal cases never reach that court.  Most disputes are decided and resolved  in federal district courts or the federal courts of appeals.  Federal civil cases that make it to the Supreme Court are often considered to have national importance.

Do You Know Your Civil Rights?

Understanding The Federal Civil Suit Process          

In many cases, companies involved in civil suits opt to settle out of court instead of submitting themselves to the lengthy and costly federal civil suit process. However, sometimes the opposing parties can’t come to an agreement and the case has to go to trial.  Here is the process broken down in the simplest terms:

  1. File and Serve a Copy of the Complaint: Similar to state-level civil cases, federal civil suits begin when the plaintiff files their complaint and serves a copy to the defendant. The complaint details the plaintiff’s damages, how the plaintiff is responsible, confirmation of federal jurisdiction, and the “relief” sought.
  1. Case Preparation: Also called “discovery,” during the case preparation, litigants share information about the case with each other, gather evidence, and prepare to call witnesses. Litigants can also file motions at this time.
  1. Alternative Dispute Resolution: In most cases, it’s in the best interest of both parties to settle their civil dispute outside of court via arbitration, mediation, or another method. If they can agree, the case concludes in a settlement.
  1. The Trial: If the case is moved to a trial, the case may be decided by a federal judge or jury. A federal civil suit trial involves the presentation of evidence, witness examination, and cross-examination.

Federal Lawsuits Require Special Knowledge

Many attorneys are uncomfortable litigating in federal court.  Why?  This is often because federal courts are much more formal that state courts and federal judges are generally much stricter than state court judges about procedure.  For this reason, many lawyers, especially those representing plaintiffs, avoid federal court at all costs.

When selecting an attorney to represent you in federal court, it is extremely important to focus upon how much experience the lawyer has had litigating civil cases in federal court.  At The Federal Defenders, our team of attorneys and paralegals are well versed in federal civil practice, especially given that we litigate in federal courts all the time.  It’s hard enough when you’re the plaintiff in a civil case but having an inexperienced attorney can make it even worse.  Having the right lawyer with the right experience can make the difference between success and failure. 


Former federal prosecutor, respected lawyer committed to delivering results. Following graduation from the University of Illinois College of Law, Paul Padda began his career in 1994 with the United States Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. litigating complex civil cases in both federal trial and appellate courts. He later was selected to serve as an Assistant United States Attorney in the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.) where he handled a wide array of civil matters in federal court on behalf of the United States of America. In 2004, Mr. Padda moved to Las Vegas to serve as an Assistant United States Attorney where he litigated both civil and criminal cases. Following 16 years of significant legal experience involving high stakes litigation, Mr. Padda decided to form a law firm that would assist individuals and businesses in vindicating their legal rights.