If you were asked when a lawsuit can be filed in federal court, what would you say? Based on media coverage of federal rulings, you might think that the federal courts are reserved for lawsuits involving constitutional issues, but that isnt true. In fact, federal courts often hear cases that have nothing to do with the U.S. Constitutionor even with federal law. To determine whether a federal court can hear a case, you must know whether the federal courts have jurisdiction over cases of that sort. Most of the time, federal courts have jurisdiction over civil cases (i.e., the kind that you might file) based on one of two federal statutes, 28 U.S.C. § 1331, which grants federal courts federal-question jurisdiction, or 28 U.S.C. § 1332, which grants federal courts diversity jurisdiction.
1. Federal-Question Jurisdiction Under 28 U.S.C. § 1331
Federal courts have federal-question jurisdiction in civil lawsuits that arise under the U.S. Constitution, federal laws, or treaties with other countries. Generally, this means that the lawsuit involves a cause of action created under federal law, like a violation of federal anti-discrimination laws. A lawsuit based on a violation of constitutional rights would also invoke a federal courts federal-question jurisdiction. In deciding such cases, the federal court would apply relevant federal law.
2. Diversity Jurisdiction Under 28 U.S.C. § 1332
If a federal court doesnt have federal-question jurisdiction, then it might still have diversity jurisdiction. Federal courts have diversity jurisdiction in civil cases where the amount in controversy is greater than $75,000 if there is whats known as complete diversity of citizenship between the plaintiffs and defendants in the case. Complete diversity means that no plaintiff is from the same state as any defendant. Even if there are multiple plaintiffs and multiple defendants in a case, if any one plaintiff is from the same state as any one defendant, the federal courts wont have diversity jurisdiction. When a federal court is exercising diversity jurisdiction, it will use the laws of the state where it sits to decide the case. For example, if the federal court where the lawsuit is filed is in New Orleans, then the court will apply Louisiana law to decide the case.
These arent the only bases for federal jurisdiction over a civil case, but they are the most common. So, next time somebody asks you when a lawsuit can be filed in federal court, youll know the answer.