What is exclusive federal subject matter jurisdiction?

When we say subject matter jurisdiction we mean the power of a court to decide a certain type of case.  Federal courts in the United States have the power to decide some types of cases but they do not have subject matter jurisdiction over every type of case in the United States.

U.S. federal courts' subject matter jurisdiction comes from the Constitution and the Congress of the United States.  If you look at Article III of the U.S. Constitution you will see a list of cases in which the federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction.  These cases include, among other things, admiralty cases, patent cases, and cases between two different states (e.g., New York sues New Jersey).  

Some cases can be heard in both state and federal courts.  We can say that the federal and state courts have concurrent jurisdiction over those types of cases.

For some types of cases federal courts have exclusive federal subject matter jurisdiction - - only federal courts can decide these types of cases.  In other words, the cases cannot be heard in state court.   Some examples where federal courts have exclusive subject matter jurisdiction include the types of cases I listed above as well as bankruptcy cases and federal antitrust cases.

 When passing a law, sometimes Congress will specify that federal courts have exclusive subject matter jurisdiction.   For example, if you look at 18 USC 2338 and subsequent sections you will see that Congress established certain laws addressing terrorism and that these cases can only be heard in federal courts.



What if someone refuses to share information during discovery?

You have probably learned that in the United States courts favor broad discovery.  For example, in federal court parties are required to disclose certain information at the beginning of the case without being asked.  Parties then must meet to create a plan and schedule for discovery.   During discovery parties are able to seek a wide range of information from each other.  

Of course there are controversies.  For example, one party might believe that a document is immune from discovery because the document came from the party's lawyer and contains legal advice.  How can this controversy be settled?

Courts usually encourage parties to settle the argument by discussing the problem and coming up with their own solutions.  If that doesn't work, the parties might meet with a judge or a magistrate  - - a special judge dealing with specific matters, such as discovery - - to resolve the issue.  

Sometimes the party seeking the information will have to make a motion to compel.  A motion is where a judge is asked to do something.  A motion to compel is where a judge is asked to order someone to do something.  For example, in a motion to compel production (disclosure) of a document, the party seeking the document will ask the judge to order the party holding the document to disclose it.  If the motion is granted, the party in possession of the document must provide it to the moving party.  

I uploaded a short video on motions to compel during discovery:


Extraterritorial Application of US Law: Liu Meng-Lin v. Siemens AG

As a general rule, US law does not apply outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.  A recent decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (Liu Meng-Lin v. Siemens AG) provides a helpful illustration.   As a reminder, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals is a federal appellate court that decides appeals from  Connecticut, New York, and Vermont district courts.   The Second Circuit is particularly influential with respect to securities laws because it hears cases on appeal from New York, including the federal court in Manhattan.

After the 2008 financial crisis Congress passed a law called the Dodd-Frank Act.  Among many other things, the Dodd-Frank Act provides protection for whistleblowers - - persons who report securities law violations by their companies.    The Dodd-Frank Act prohibits companies from retaliating against employees who report certain types of violations of US law.  

The plaintiff in this case sued his former employer, arguing that the company illegally fired him after he internally reported corrupt practices by the company.  He complained that by firing him, the company violated the Dodd-Frank Act's protection for whistleblowers.

But the district court dismissed his case and the Second Circuit affirmed the district court's decision.  Why? The plaintiff was a foreigner (non-US citizen) working for a foreign company and all of the conduct at issue in the case occurred overseas.  Specifically:

  1. The foreign company's allegedly corrupt activity occurred outside the United States (in North Korea and China).
  2. The plaintiff reported the activity overseas.
  3. The allegedly illegal retaliation occurred overseas.

According to the Second Circuit, the only connection to the United States was that the foreign company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.  The Second Circuit, citing recent Supreme Court decisions, explained that because Congress did not clearly intend whistleblower protection laws to apply extraterritorially, the plaintiff's case must be dismissed.

Here is a video discussing the case:




Non-hearsay: when is an out of court statement admissible into evidence?

I talked a bit about hearsay in an earlier post.  Hearsay is an out of court statement that a lawyer wants to offer into evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.  Let's say Wally heard David say that Mary robbed a bank.  If a prosecutor asks Wally to testify as to what David said, that's hearsay.  Why?  Because the prosecutor wants to use David's statement to prove that Mary robbed the bank.  But Wally doesn't have any personal knowledge about what David saw or didn't see.  He's just repeating what David told him.  Wally's testimony would be hearsay and is probably not admissible in court.

But sometimes a lawyer wants to use an out of court statement for purposes other than to prove the truth of the matter asserted.  In my previous post I gave one example, here's another.  Let's say Wally tells a police officer that David is carrying a stolen gun and is about to rob a bank.  The police officer stops David outside the bank and searches him, finding a stolen necklace but no gun.  David is arrested and placed on trial.  If a prosecutor asks the police officer why he searched David the police officer will testify that he was told that David was carrying a gun and was planning to rob a bank.  Is that hearsay?  Maybe not.  The prosecutor is not trying to prove that David was carrying a stolen gun and planning to rob a bank, he's just trying to explain why the police officer searched David.  The jury is not interested in whether Wally's statement was true - - we're just interested in what Wally said.

Below is a video on out of court statements that are not hearsay because they are not being admitted into evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.







What is hearsay - - what is the hearsay rule?

 A witness cannot always testify about things he saw, read, heard, or thinks.  Hearsay is a type of testimony that is generally inadmissible in court - - meaning it is a category of testimony that courts generally prohibit.

The standard definition of hearsay is an out of court statement offered for the truth of the matter asserted.  What does that mean?  Whenever a witness at a trial tries to testify about what someone else told him, and a lawyer wants the jury to believe that what the witness heard was true, we might have a hearsay problem.

Let's say Debbie is on trial for robbing a store.  David saw Debbie go to the store at 1:00, ten minutes before the robbery.  David told Wally that he saw Debbie go to the store at 1:00.   Can the prosecutor ask Wally to testify that David told him that he saw Debbie go to the store?  Maybe not - - this looks like hearsay.  Wally is testifying about David's out of court statement.  And the prosecutor wants the jury to believe that what David said was true.  

Please keep in mind that there are a number of important exceptions to the hearsay rule - -  we'll talk about them in other posts.

Also, just because a witness testifies about what another person said does not always make it hearsay.  Let's say a person was carrying an umbrella in New York City on a day that it did not rain.  He carried the umbrella because a weather report incorrectly stated that there was a thunderstorm in New York that day.  If the person explains that he was carrying the umbrella because of the weather report he is not claiming that the weather report was true.  The weather report is not being offered for the truth of the matter asserted.  Everyone knows that the weather report was false.  But we want to know what the weather report said because it explains why the person carried an umbrella on a day with no rain.

Below is a video on hearsay, more to come.



What is the Compact Clause?

The Compact Clause is one of the clauses in the United States Constitution.  According to the Compact Clause no state can enter into “any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power” without approval from Congress.

Courts and the US government do not treat the Compact Clause literally.  States can enter into agreements with each other without Congress's approval, provided the agreement does not interfere with the federal government's ability to perform its job.  For example, let's say State A and State B decide to work together to fight fires that can threaten both states.  Congress does not have to approve the agreement.  Even agreements with other countries often do not get attention from the federal government unless they interfere with the US government's ability to conduct foreign policy.  

On a side note the Compact Clause, as I recall, tends to get little attention in law school and on bar exams.  If anyone has a different experience, let me know.

What is claim preclusion?

You will often see claim preclusion referred to as Res Judicata.

Claim preclusion is what keeps parties from suing each other again after a final judgment on the merits is reached in a civil litigation.   For example, if a plaintiff prevails in a lawsuit against a defendant or loses a case against a defendant in Case A, the plaintiff probably cannot sue the defendant again based on the same events in Case B. Even if the plaintiff sues in a different court or alleges new causes of action, Case B is probably barred by claim preclusion.

 For example, let's say after a car accident Patty sues David for negligence in Case A.   The jury in Case A rules against Patty.  Patty probably can't sue David again based on the car accident.  Even if she sues in a different court or alleges battery instead of negligence, the case is probably barred.

Three things to look for in a case where claim preclusion might apply:

1. Were the same parties involved in a prior litigation?

2. Is the second lawsuit based on the same events as the first lawsuit?

3. Were the causes of action (e.g., negligence) in the second case already litigated in the first case?  Could the causes of action in the second case have been raised in the first case?

If the answers to these questions are "Yes" then claim preclusion probably applies.  

Below is a video on claim preclusion.


What is the castle doctrine?

In the United States, the so-called "castle doctrine" refers to state laws governing a person's use of force in self-defense when in his home (and sometimes his car).   As a general rule in the U.S. a person has a duty to retreat, if he can do so safely, before using lethal force against an attacker.  States apply the castle doctrine to allow people to use force, including lethal force, against intruders in their their homes without requiring a person to attempt to retreat first.  There is some variation from state to state in how the castle doctrine is applied.

 One common misconception is that states allow homeowners to use lethal force against anyone who merely trespasses on their property.  That's not true.  But states do generally give greater leeway to people to use force to protect themselves within their homes without imposing a duty to retreat first.