Between the Lines: Top 4 E-filing Mistakes, Part I
In theory, electronic court filing (e-filing) appears easier than physical filing. Theoretically, an attorney just trades paper documents for digital ones, and submits them online rather than in person or by mail. In practice, however, e-filing can be cumbersome and tedious.
Mistakes are fairly common among e-filers with the most frustrating being those that result in court rejections. There are four broad categories where e-filers tend to misstep. This week, we’ll review the first two: data consistency and file formatting. Next week we’ll talk about procedure and a grouping of mistakes known as the three D’s (Duplicates, Disclosure, and Deadlines). Arm yourself with knowledge and a checklist of what to double check before you click submit.
1. Discrepancies & Missing Information
While technology can speed up processes, it also opens doors that make it easier to forget the small things. One common problem seen on e-filing submissions is irrelevant or missing information. Previously, it was necessary to print a new form or document to start a new case. Digital files are less cut-and-dry. The form starts and ends in a digital format, and digital files are easy to edit. It can be difficult to resist the urge to duplicate an existing document or information from a previous document and edit it to fit your needs, but this can lead to accidental errors, with incorrect or unrelated information being left in the file.
It makes sense to have some information either in the form or on-hand for a quick copy and paste, such as information about the firm or required attorney information. Legal software and document automation tools have contributed to making “fresh starts” on paperwork simpler by automatically filling in repeated information. Whether your practice takes an older or newer approach to document creation, double-checking your information is essential for clean filings.
Commonly Forgotten Fields
Don’t forget to fill out all required fields and checkboxes as needed. It’s easy to miss a small box on page three when you don’t have the pages to flip through, but your documents will be rejected for being incomplete or missing key pieces of information. If you find yourself working on or editing a copy of a file, be sure to clear out placeholders your team may have in key document fields, as well as any other information irrelevant to the current case. Always double and triple check that names, email addresses, and your case number match across the entire document.
One of the most commonly forgotten pieces of information is ironically tied into the last step of the process — signing the document. While these are digital documents, they are legal documents, and each requires a signature. There is less flourish to a digital signature compared to a written signature, so it can take more to remember if you did or did not sign. Make a conscious note of the signature so that your case isn’t unexpectedly delayed. Other common pieces of forgotten or commonly incorrect information include filing codes and exhibit attachments. Below is a quick summary of fields to double-check.
Data Consistency Checklist:
- Signatures are present, easy-to-read and from the correct parties
- All contact information is correct and pertinent to the current case, especially names and email addresses
- Filing codes and document identification information align when required
- Case numbers, case captions, or summary information is accurate as required
- Case type is identified and selected correctly where required
- Any boxes you’ve checked match the document’s intent
- Docket entries match your expectations, if relevant
- The file includes case exhibits as needed per court filing requirements
2. Incorrect File Formatting
File formatting is a prime example of something that needs more attention in e-filing. When physically filing, an attorney can print a document and fill it out. As long as the writing is legible and in blue or black ink, the file could be mailed or submitted to court. With e-filing documents, it can be more complex. Each court has requirements around the forms and documents that must be included with a case. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is what courts can or will accept in terms of file formats and formatting.
A firm must be able to maintain document formatting for proper submission to the e-filing portal. Be sure to look for the filing portal’s file type or format requirements. Most systems use PDF — a ubiquitous and reliable document that can be designed to be filled out online. When able to fill in the form digitally, attorneys only need to make sure they have the latest forms, and be sure not to alter the file format when saving.
Take caution and be sure to maintain the file type if the form can’t easily be filled out digitally, or if other files need to be added to the primary form. Some simple errors happen when attorneys resort to manually filling out forms or when they scan and combine files. Pages aren’t oriented correctly, scans aren’t clear, or the formats are not PDFs, and you don’t have the software to properly convert them. As an aside, while it may seem like a simple solution, it isn’t recommended to use online conversion tools when dealing with confidential client data.
Many e-filing portals have file size constraints, both the dimensions of the pages in the file, and the final file size in bytes. File size limits help keep information flowing and prevent the submission of needlessly large files that bog down digital systems. However, getting a document down to the right size can be difficult. Cases with extensive exhibit files are notoriously large. In fact, combining several files into a single file often adds unnecessary bulk if both files are not properly optimized. Some PDF management applications will allow for file compression or size reduction without altering the file structure.
Each portal will have its own limitations on file sizes. The key for the file size limit is knowing the limit for your court or case type. Dimension restraints often seek to keep the documents easily printable and call for pages between standard letter paper (8.5 in. x 11 in.) and legal paper (8.5 in. x 14 in.) sizes. File size restraints are shown in bytes, Kilobytes (KB) or more commonly Megabytes (MB). The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, for example, has a general cap of 50 MB for a single file, while Indiana Courts have different limits on Trial and Appellate Court submissions. Be sure to check on the portal requirements in your court before submitting a file.
Each court and portal has requirements around what should be included in a single file for submission, so the e-filing team at ABC Legal will often compile or extract files from client documents to meet court requirements.
For example, at the time of this writing, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia requires the motion, memorandum, and statement of facts to be included in a single file. Related affidavits, orders, and exhibits are submitted as separately as attachments to the motion. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on the other hand, allows for exhibits to be attached to the primary complaint document under certain circumstances. This is another e-filing requirement that you should assess at a court and case type level. Be sure to look for rules around exhibits, attachments, related documents and any corresponding page limits in your e-filing portal and evaluate your files accordingly.
File Format Requirement Checklist:
- The file type and file extension match upload requirements for the portal
- The total file size is smaller than the portal limit
- The file dimensions match those listed on the portal’s requirements (commonly between the equivalent of legal and letter paper)
- The file matches court formatting requirements (look for stipulations around font size, margins and areas left blank for documenting court approval/receipt)
- The document is entirely legible, especially if it is a scanned document
- If a template is provided, the most recent version of the court form is used
- The file includes the right number of related documents per court requirements
- The file does not exceed page limit rules if they exist on the portal
- Exhibits and related documents are either included in the file or separated and ready to be linked to the case per court requirements
- Additional documents are correctly associated with the filing if needed
What to Remember When E-filing
E-filing gets complicated quickly. As technology allows people to transition to digital versions of tasks, people struggle as they lose the tactile sensation of “doing something.” Having to print and physically fill out court documents is a prime example and leads to the sort of discrepancies and missing information listed above.
Your best bet when e-filing is to get familiar with the territory, get a checklist going, and maybe even consider hiring an e-filing provider. More on that next week, where in part II, we’ll uncover more of the most common e-filing mistakes and round out your e-filing cheat sheet.
About ABC Legal
With more than 2,000 process servers across the U.S. and 75 countries, ABC Legal is the nation’s leading service of process and court filing provider, as well as the Acting Central Authority to the U.S. Department of Justice. Our digital approach saves valuable time and resources, and our cloud-based solutions are compatible for use on desktop, browser, and smartphones. Docketly—an ABC Legal subsidiary—provides appearance counsel on a digital, custom-built platform that smoothly integrates with our applications and services. Learn more at www.abclegal.com.