Civil litigation is often a daunting prospect for business owners and other litigants who may be confused by the complexity of the New York court system. There are many types of courts that hear civil claims, and many people may not even know where to begin when they need to file a lawsuit. Here is a brief overview of how civil litigation works in New York.
New York is divided into 62 counties, which include the five boroughs of New York City. Each county or borough has a number of civil courts. The type of court you file your lawsuit in depends primarily on the value of your claim. If you are seeking $25,000 or less in damages, your case may be heard in a a County Court (or a Civil Court in New York City). In Nassau County and western Suffolk County, there is also a District Court, which can hear civil claims up to $15,000. Many other cities, villages and towns in New York have their own local courts to hear similar claims.
But most civil litigation—particularly cases where the amount in controversy exceeds $25,000—is heard by the Supreme Court of the State of New York. Despite the name, the Supreme Court is a trial court, not the state's highest court, which is actually the Court of Appeals of New York. Each county or borough has one or more Supreme Court justices assigned to it.
Once the Supreme Court decides a case, either party may seek review of that decision by the Appellate Division, which is a group of Supreme Court judges who serve as an intermediary between the trial level of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. The Appellate Division is divided into four geographic departments. The First Department hears appeals from Manhattan and the Bronx; the Second Department from Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Long Island and several upstate counties; the Third Department from upstate counties in and around Albany; and the Fourth Department from in and around Rochester.
Most civil cases do not proceed past the Appellate Division level. This is because parties generally do not have an automatic right of appeal to the Court of Appeals. Either the Appellate Division or the Court of Appeals itself must grant permission for such an appeal, and it is rarely given.
You may find yourself in a situation where you file a civil lawsuit against someone in New York Supreme Court, and the defendant then asks to transfer (or remove) the case to a federal court. Why does this happen? Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress may authorize federal courts to hear cases “between Citizens of different States.” In other words, if you live in New York and sue someone who lives in New Jersey, that person can choose to have the case heard before a federal court. This is a common scenario in breach of contract and similar civil cases where the parties are corporations based in different states.
There are some rules with respect to this type of federal jurisdiction, also known as diversity jurisdiction. The amount in controversy must exceed $75,000. There must also be “complete” diversity between the parties. For example, if you live in New York and sue a partnership for breach of contract, if one of the defendant partners live in New York, the case cannot be heard in federal court, even if every other partner resides in another state. A corporation is also considered a resident of the state that serves as its “principal place of business.” So a corporation chartered in Delaware but headquartered in New York City would be considered a New York resident for purposes of determining diversity jurisdiction.
Whether your case is tried in federal or state court, however, the same underlying law still applies. So if you filed a breach of contract case under New York law, that is the law a federal court must apply. The difference is that the case is tried in a U.S. District Court, rather than the New York Supreme Court, and any appeals are heard by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
Jurisdiction is just one issue among many that arises in civil litigation. That is why it is important to work with an experienced New York civil litigation attorney who will look out for your interests. Contact our office today if you would like to speak with someone about your case.