Legal, Laws, and Regs

The PACER Class Action Lawsuit and Donating to RECAP

The PACER system is the federal court document system. The PACER class action lawsuit is a lawsuit started several years ago, claiming the courts were overcharging folks for PACER. Since the courts were using PACER funds for in-court screens and computers, and not just paying for the PACER system, itself, the court found that the lawsuit claim was justified.

All these years later, the judge presiding over the case has accepted the 125 million dollar class action settlement between the litigants and the government. Barring an appeal, which most likely won’t happen, the class action has finally come to a legal conclusion.

So, what does all of this mean to PACER users?

It means if you’ve paid for court documents in PACER between the dates of April 21, 2010 and March 31, 2018, you should get a check. Not right away: it’s likely no one will see any funds for several months. With this kind of money, and this many claimants—and most folk involved are lawyers—things don’t happen overnight.

How much of a check will you get? Well, there’s an algorithm for that.

If you paid $350 or less during the target period, you’ll get a check to fully reimburse you for what you paid. The idea here is that most small dollar spenders are general public doing research for whatever reason. According to the opinion, one of the goals for the settlement is give relief for the little guy:

First, to give relief to small-scale PACER users – the non-lawyer members of the public and individual law practitioners who were most affected by having to pay unlawful fees; the full reimbursement
of all PACER fees paid up to $350 makes it more likely that small-scale users will be wholly compensated.

Once these funds have been distributed, than the rest will be refunded to those who paid more than $350.00 on a pro rata basis. This includes large legal firms, as well as individuals who made heavier use of PACER.

Being a legal hobbyist (yes, that’s a thing), I’m in this latter group. From the records I received from the folks at PACER, I have spent exactly $4081.72 during the class action target period. This means I should receive a check for $350.00, but I suspect when I’m lumped in with the big legal groups, I might get another dollar or so but not much more.

There was a legal objection to the settlement, specifically because of folks like myself who spent a goodly amount, but no where near the amount the big guys spent. Then there was a legal objection to much of the funds going to the small scale payers. In the end, the settlement did a bit of a give or take on both to find a sense of balance and fairness. I personally thought it was about the best they could do, and getting even that $350.00 back is more than I’ve ever gotten on any class action in the past.

The government has improved PACER access in small part because of this lawsuit and other concerns. Now, as long as you keep your legal sleuthing to less than $30.00 a quarter, you won’t get charged. It still does things ‘wrong’, such as charging you per page for a search request, but it has improved.

PACER improvements aside,  I no longer spend any money at PACER. I now use the RECAP Archive for all my court case monitoring.

The RECAP Archive is a component of CourtListener: a database of court documents you can access for free. It’s part of the Free Law Project:

Free Law Project seeks to provide free access to primary legal materials, develop legal research tools, and support academic research on legal corpora. We work diligently with volunteers to expand our efforts at building an open source, open access, legal research ecosystem. Currently Free Law Project sponsors the development of CourtListenerJuriscraper, and RECAP.

How RECAP works is people like me use a RECAP browser extension when we access PACER. When we access a court docket and/or court document, RECAP sends a copy of the docket/court document to the RECAP archive. So, after a RECAP participant has accessed the court document and it’s uploaded to RECAP, everyone else can now access that document for free.

Every quarter, I download court documents until I reach my nonpaying quota, knowing these documents will then be uploaded to RECAP. Many others are doing the same. Because of our combined effort, many of us never have to pay another PACER bill. I haven’t paid for PACER access for years, and I’m currently following 42 court cases on RECAP.

The PACER class action lawsuit is well and good and I’m glad to get the funds back. But the real lifesaver when it comes to PACER is the Free Law Project and the RECAP Archive; enough so that I’m donating whatever class action funds I receive to the Free Law Project. I’m hoping to get other folks to do the same.

Court documents aren’t just about issues of law—they’re about how we live our lives today, and they form a history for tomorrow. We shouldn’t have to depend on what a news program tells us what they want us to know about a court document—we should be able to access the court document directly and discover what it says for ourselves.

Court documents should be free, and the RECAP Archive is helping to make it so. If you get money back from this PACER lawsuit, consider donating all or part of it to the Free Law Project.