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Upper Court vs. Lower Court: The Difference In Civil Records

A photograph of the facade of a civil court house.

For employers who want to conduct thorough employment screenings for candidates, it can be challenging to determine which types of checks to run, what they mean, and the results they’ll provide. One of the most common areas of confusion pertains to civil courts and civil court records. Specifically, what’s the difference between ‘upper’ vs ‘lower’ civil courts, and what do these checks show?

Let’s take a closer look at the differences between these courts, what Upper and Lower Civil Court Background Checks are, and how they’re used to make informed hiring decisions.

What Is Upper Court vs. Lower Court?

State-level civil court cases are divided between two types of courts: lower court and upper court. (Some states also refer to them as county or circuit courts.) What’s the difference? Typically the dollar amount, or monetary value, of the case or claim.

Most states divide these courts based on the maximum amount being disputed in the claim. Each state has a unique dollar limit allowed to be claimed—anywhere from $2,500 to $25,000—which determines where it’s handled. Anything at or below the maximum amount is handled in the lower court; anything above is handled in the upper court.

When running background checks, it’s also important to know and understand that civil court is different from criminal court. In criminal court, individuals are tried for committing a crime—like theft, robbery, assault, murder, arson, and more. Therefore, criminal records will appear in a criminal record check

On the other hand, Civil Court Background Checks will reveal civil court records. In civil court, virtually all other disputes are handled—spanning a wide variety of cases and legal issues. 

From a broader perspective, some of the most common disputes in civil court include a person suing another person, agency, or business. That may be in the form of tort claims, breach of contract, landlord-tenant claims, and equitable claims. However, if you break that down even further, those disputes may relate to issues such as:

  • Loan repayment
  • Security deposits
  • Faulty car repairs
  • Property damage
  • Personal injuries (that aren’t resolved between insurance companies)
  • Contract breaches
  • Defamation (libel or slander)
  • Product liability
  • Malpractice

In some circumstances, civil cases may be heard in Federal District Court rather than state court. This may happen if:

  • The claim is more than $75,000
  • The people involved live in different states or countries, or
  • The claim includes matters of federal law, including constitutional issues

Another difference between civil and criminal courts? Judges in criminal court have the power to punish people via fines and jail sentences. Meanwhile, judges in civil court can order people to pay money or fines and make decisions that impact families (like custody disputes) or properties (like landlord and tenant disputes).

So, if you’re seeking information about candidates beyond criminal background checks—like civil court records—what are your screening options, and how can those results help inform your hiring decisions? Let’s dig deeper.

What Is An Upper Civil Court Check?

Upper Civil Court Checks can provide relevant information for employers seeking to hire candidates with high degrees of responsibility, management, and handling of finances. Those positions may include lawyers, doctors, executives, and more.

With this type of check, upper county court records (in the counties selected) are searched for larger claims and other civil disputes, including foreclosures, tax liens, civil judgments, debt collections, and civil domestic violence. 

These screenings typically go back seven years but may go back ten years if the candidate’s salary will be $75,000 or more. However, employers and candidates in California, New Mexico, Montana, and Massachusetts will only receive seven years of history due to state law.

What Is A Lower Civil Court Check?

Lower Civil Court Checks also provide relevant information and insight into candidates’ backgrounds. This screening searches lower county court records (again, in the counties selected) for small claims and other minor disputes. 

As mentioned, each state has a maximum dollar amount that can be filed for lower claims—some as high as $25,000 and some as low as $2,500. In most states, employers can search back a maximum of seven years. However, similar to Upper Civil Court Checks, employers may expand that search to 10 years if the position’s salary is $75,000 or more. Also, like Upper Civil Court Checks, Lower Civil Court Check searches are limited to seven years for employees and candidates in California, New Mexico, Montana, and Massachusetts.

Results Of Upper & Lower Civil Court Checks

While the upper and lower court claims are divided based on the amount of money involved, employers can expect these screenings to reveal similar information, such as:

  • Small claims and minor disputes (these will typically appear on lower civil court checks)
  • Liens and foreclosures
  • Product liability suits
  • Breach of contracts
  • Restraining orders
  • Personal injury (including medical malpractice claims, which can be relevant for healthcare employers)

It’s important to note that a bankruptcy will not show up on an Upper or Lower Civil Court Background Check. For that, you’ll need to use a Federal Bankruptcy Search or Employment Credit Check.

Why Civil Court Checks Are Helpful

Why is all of this information important for you? Bottom line: To hire the most qualified candidates, employers want to gather as much relevant background information as it pertains to the position. 

For example, jobs that require greater levels of responsibility—like management or overseeing finances—checking for small claims cases involving owed debt may be incredibly informative of how candidates manage their personal finances, which may reflect on how they might manage your organization’s finances. 

In another scenario, if a candidate has claims against them of personal injury, medical malpractice, or restraining orders, they may pose a risk to the safety of other employees (or patients) and the company as a whole.

Ready To Conduct Upper & Lower Civil Court Checks? Get Started Here

Beyond hiring the most qualified candidates, when used as part of a comprehensive background check, Civil Court Background Checks help you safeguard company assets, comply with industry regulations, and follow company hiring policies—all of which are key to protecting your organization and its employees.

When conducting Civil Court Background Checks, it can save you a lot of time and resources to use a professional background screener to help you make the most informed (and fair) hiring decisions. 

At GoodHire, we know how important background checks are to your business, and we know how tricky it is for employers to keep up with different local screening laws. That’s why we do the heavy-lifting for you. We adhere to federal, state, and local screening laws to help you remain compliant throughout the entire screening process, including navigating the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and adverse reaction steps, should any screening results be used in adverse hiring decisions.

With GoodHire, you get fast, accurate results and compliance peace of mind.

GoodHire offers hundreds of screening options, including Upper & Lower Civil Court Checks, Federal Court Checks, and Federal Bankruptcy Checks.

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Illustration showing GoodHire's civil court background check service

The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. We advise you to consult your own counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.

About the Author

Ashley Blonquist is a former news journalist. She writes about GoodHire’s employment screening services and how employers use them to make informed hiring decisions.