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Federal (District) Court

Last Modified: 03/10/2020

Federal court jurisdiction is limited to the types of cases listed in the Constitution and specifically provided for by Congress. For the most part, federal courts only hear: Cases in which the United States is a party; Cases involving violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal laws (under federal-question jurisdiction); Cases between citizens of different states if the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 (under diversity jurisdiction); and Bankruptcy, copyright, patent, and maritime law cases.

In some cases, both federal and state courts have jurisdiction. This allows parties to choose whether to go to state court or to federal court.

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. There are three Districts in Florida: the Northern District, the Middle District, and the South District.

WHAT ARE MY RIGHTS?

Determine if your legal matter should be filed in a federal court or a state court by answering yes to at least one of the following questions.

Does the matter include a dispute that involves a right in the United States Constitution?

Is it a dispute that involves a federal law (as opposed to a state law or local ordinance)?

Is it a dispute that involves the United States of America (or any of its agencies, officers, or employees in their official capacities) as a party?

Is it a dispute between citizens of different states with an amount in controversy that is more than $75,000? 

A federal lawsuit begins by filing a Complaint (a document that states who you are suing and why) and other required documents with the clerk in the appropriate district.

You must be at least 18 years of age. You may be an individual, a person Doing Business As (also known as, “d/b/a”), or a corporation. A minor child must have a parent or legal guardian file on their behalf. 

The clerk of court may be able to provide information on filing fees.

WHAT DO YOU NEED TO DO?

These are the general steps to how to file a civil lawsuit in County Court.

The court location where you file a lawsuit is known as the “Venue.”

Generally, you may file a federal civil case in the district where any defendant lives or where the claim arose.

The Middle District has five divisions that serve several counties throughout the central part of Florida.

Fort Myers: Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hendry, Lee

Jacksonville: Baker, Bradford, Clay, Columbia, Duval, Flagler, Hamilton, Nassau, Putnam, St. Johns, Suwannee, Union

Ocala: Citrus, Lake, Marion, Sumter

Orlando: Brevard, Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Volusia

Tampa: Hardee, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Sarasota

First, you must prepare the Complaint. A Complaint is a court document that sets out the parties and the reason for the lawsuit, including the amount due or the property you want returned. The person who starts the case is called the “plaintiff”: the person being sued is called the “defendant.” If you want a jury trial it must be requested in the Complaint. This is the time to present the facts of your case.

The facts include what happened, where it happened, when it happened, how it happened, and who was involved.

You may also choose to support your complaint in the form of exhibits. If you do not include sufficient facts to allow the Court to draw a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct you allege, your complaint may be subject to dismissal.

You will also need to complete a Civil Cover Sheet. This is a form that explains what type of case is being filed. 

Finally, a Summons is required. Once the filing fee is paid the Clerk will issue you a Summons. You will need a Summons to be issued for each Defendant.

A filing fee is paid, and the Summons is issued. For information on filing fee amounts, go to https://www.uscourts.gov/services-forms/fees/district-court-miscellaneous-fee-schedule.

An Application for Indigent Status can be completed to waive this fee.

The Complaint, Civil Cover Sheet and Summons are filed at the Clerk’s office.

A copy of the documents is served on the Defendant through the sheriff or private process server. You will be responsible for ensuring that a copy of the Summons and a copy of the Complaint with attachments and exhibits, if any, are served on each of the defendants. 

It will be important to refer to the Rules of Federal Procedure to ensure all the proper steps are taken.

The Defendant will generally have 21 days to respond. If they do not, you can ask the Court for a Default Judgment.

If the Defendant files a response to the Complaint, you can file discovery requests. These are written questions that request the Defendant answer questions or provide documents.

After Discovery has been completed, you can request a final hearing or trial.

At the trial or final hearing, you will present evidence and witnesses that support your position. The Defendant will also be given the opportunity to present their own evidence and witnesses.

If you win your lawsuit, you will need to take steps to collect the money the court has awarded to you through the court case. 

The next sections will explain the general steps you will need to take if you want to collect on a judgment.

The first step in enforcing a judgment is to investigate the collectible assets of the opposing party against whom you obtained a judgment (the “debtor”). 

The law provides the successful party in a lawsuit (the “creditor”) with certain procedural tools to gain information from the debtor regarding his or her collectible assets. This process is known as discovery in aid of execution.

For example, a creditor may take the deposition of the debtor or propound interrogatories (questions). The debtor must provide sworn answers to the questions. Failing cooperation, the creditor may move the court to compel the debtor to attend a deposition or answer interrogatories. The court has the ability to impose fines or jail time in egregious circumstances.

The next step is to execute the judgment upon the debtor’s collectible assets. 

One simple and effective means of doing this is to record a certified copy of the judgment in the official records of the county in which the real property is located, causing the judgment to become a lien upon the property in certain circumstances. 

With the lien in place, you can then levy and execute upon the real property to satisfy the judgment amount (subject to any superior liens upon the property).

This method is not available if the real property is homestead property of the judgment debtor. Article X, Section 4, of the Florida Constitution exempts homestead property from judgment liens or forced sale. 

It is important to note that the homestead status of property for tax purposes does not determine whether the property is considered homestead for purposes of the constitutional exemption against creditors. 

Additionally, it is not likely practical to seek a lien on a property that is subject to a mortgage that exceeds the value of the property or other superior liens that may reduce the proceeds available from the sale of the property.

You can also seek certain other assets to satisfy a judgment:

  • Garnishing wages or bank accounts. This option is not available if the funds to be garnished qualify as the wages or salary of a head of household and the debtor has not consented in writing to waive the head of household exemption.
  • Attaching liens to personal property. Personal property of the judgment debtor may be executed upon subject to the debtor’s ability to claim an exemption of up to $4,000 if he or she is not already claiming a homestead exemption. Florida Statute § 222.25 (2015). A judgment debtor may claim an exemption of up to $1,000 equity in a personal motor vehicle.

Please note that the above options may be subject to the applicability of additional exemptions under state and federal law.

WHAT TO CONSIDER BEFORE TAKING ACTION?

You must know the name and address of the person you want to sue, or you will not be able to serve the Complaint.

Does the person you want to sue have assets that are not exempt from collection? If all their assets are protected, you will not collect anything even if you win the case.

Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. This rule prohibits the filing of lawsuits that are clearly frivolous or filed just to harass someone. If the Court determines that you have filed a lawsuit for an improper or unnecessary reason, it may impose sanctions against you, including ordering that you pay the legal fees of the party you sued.

What happens if you lose? If you lose, the winning party may ask that you be ordered to pay his or her attorney fees. The winning party is also entitled to seek certain costs which were incurred during the lawsuit. These costs can include things such as deposition transcript fees, witness fees, copy expenses, etc. In many cases, these fees may add up to thousands of dollars. It is very common for a winning party to seek costs from the losing party.

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