Help on Data

Data available on this layer cover all civil matters referred to U.S. Attorney offices. The matters are tracked to final disposition. U.S. Attorney offices handle a significant portion -- but not all -- of federal civil enforcement activities. (See section on limitions below.)

The data can involve civil referrals prior to any court filing or matters referred after court litigation has commenced. In each of these situations in the civil arena the government can assume different roles.

Pre-Litigation Stage. A matter may be referred prior to litigation when an agency wishes to prosecute an individual or organization in federal court alleging the violation of a federal statute and seeking a court-ordered civil remedy. The U.S. Att orneys office may decide to take the referral or decline to do so, and the database includes both classes of dispositions (including the reason given by the federal prosecutor for declining the matter). Occasionally a matter is referred to the U.S. Attorn eys offices where a private party has presented a claim to a federal agency or official and is threatening to sue. Here the U.S. Attorney may entertain settlement negotiations with the hope of preventing a suit from being filed.

Post-Litigation Stage. Once court litigation ensues, the federal government can be the plaintiff, the defendant, or a third-party intervenor. Again, this database covers litigation where the government assumes each of these different roles.

When the United States is the plaintiff, it sues an individual or a company or a government entity like a police department or school board for violating a federal statute, a constitutional requirement, or over a dispute on a contractual obligation .

When the United States is the defendant, the situation is reversed and it is a government agency or official who is being sued. Here the United States Attorney's office has been asked to defend the government in court. This situation, in fact, occurs more frequently than those civil suits where the government is the plaintiff. Among the two most commonly occurring situations are suits brought by taxpayers against the Internal Revenue Service, and prisoner suits seeking post-conviction remedies. But the government can be sued under the Administrative Procedures Act, civil rights and employment discrimination statutes, the Freedom of Information Act, and in many other situations.

Finally, an agency may request that the U.S. Attorneys office intervene in an action between two parties to defend the government's interest as a third-party plaintiff, defendant, or other type of intervenor. This frequently occurs in bankruptcy a nd other kinds of commerical litigation. Here the government intervenes to protect its financial stake in the outcome. A substantial proportion of the civil cases covered by this database involve this type of third-party government role.

Different Court Forums. Actual litigation handled by U.S. Attorney offices may take place in a variety of forums -- not just in the federal district court. In fact, the majority of cases in which the federal government is the defendant or a third- party intervenor are filed in state and bankruptcy courts. Again, the database covers each of these court forums.

Limitations in coverage. While providing a unique new window into a large and important aspect of federal civil enforcement, it must be emphasized that these data only cover matters that have become part of the workload of the U.S. Attorneys. Conclusions based upon these data, therefore, can only be drawn about this component of the federal government's civil enforcement role. While U.S. Attorneys do handle the majority of such cases filed in the U.S. district court, substantial gaps in cove rage exist.

Gaps occur for several reasons. Unlike criminal matters, the Justice Department does not have exclusive jurisdiction to bring cases. Some agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, can file civil suits directly without going through the J ustice Department at all. Further, sometimes specialized Washington-based Justice Department divisions -- the Tax Division, Civil Rights Division, Antitrust Division, Environment and Natural Resources Division, etc. -- handle litigation without the invol vement of the local U.S. Attorney. While cases where the U.S. Attorneys office participates in a secondary role should be covered, those in which the U.S. Attorneys offices play no role generally are not included. Also, users should be aware that practices regarding which federal office handles which types of civil litigation have changed over time, complicating year-to-year comparisons.

Finally, there have also been changes in the U.S. Attorney record-keeping systems. Beginning in fiscal year 1998, for example, data on civil debt collection cases were no longer included in this database. For additional information about these data see:

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Copyright 2002, TRAC Reports, Inc.