Know the Law: Lawsuit Jurisdiction Depends on Many Factors

Jeremy Walker Headshot
Jeremy T. Walker
Director, Litigation Department
Published: Union Leader
September 12, 2016

Q. I have a significant dispute with a former employee, and efforts to resolve the dispute have failed. If I seek relief through litigation, should I bring my lawsuit in federal or state court? 

A. Not surprisingly, the answer is that it depends on many factors. The nuances of federal and state court jurisdiction are beyond the scope of this article, but the choice of courts is often critical to the success of any litigation, and you should carefully consider the proper forum with your attorney before commencing litigation.

Not all cases can be filed in either a federal or state court. Indeed, if you choose a court that does not have jurisdiction to hear the case, it likely will lead to a quick dismissal of your lawsuit. The authority of federal courts to preside over cases is limited in various ways. Federal courts have authority to hear cases involving claims arising out of federal laws.

Federal courts also have “diversity jurisdiction” to hear disputes when the plaintiff and the defendant reside in different states. Although certain cases, such as patent infringement cases, can be brought exclusively in a federal court, state courts generally have broad jurisdiction to hear a wider variety of matters.

When plaintiffs have the ability to bring their lawsuits in either federal or state court, many factors go into which court to choose. In some cases, it comes down simply to geographic location of the courthouse, although normally that is not the deciding factor.

Your attorney may recommend a particular court because your attorney has a sense of how certain judges in that court are likely to address your type of case. We are fortunate in New Hampshire to have excellent judges in both our federal and state courts, but certainly there are differences in how they oversee their cases.

Or it may be that there is a more developed body of historical case law originating in one court, thereby making it easier to predict how the issues in the case will be addressed. In some cases, such as personal injury cases, attorneys may recommend state court in a particular county due to the demographic makeup of the county and perhaps a tendency of juries in that county to award higher damages.

Another factor may be how busy a particular court’s docket is and the expected time to trial.

In sum, choosing a court involves careful consideration of various factors before commencing litigation.