Class Action Lawsuit Challenges PACER Fees as Excessive

PACER

A class action lawsuit filed yesterday in federal court in Washington, D.C., challenges the fees charged by PACER, the federal courts’ online court records system, as excessive. The lawsuit seeks to obtain relief on behalf of “all individuals and entities who have paid fees for the use of PACER within the past six years, excluding class counsel and agencies of the federal government.”

The lawsuit, filed by the Alliance for Justice, the National Veterans Legal Services Program and the National Consumer Law Center, claims that the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts is violating the E-Government Act of 2002, which mandates that the fees to access court records online cannot exceed the amount needed to maintain the system itself.

The lawsuit alleges that the Administrative Office has improperly increased fees to cover other costs such as courtroom audio systems and flat-screen televisions in jury boxes.

“This noncompliance with the E-Government Act has inhibited public understanding of the courts and thwarted equal access to justice,” the complaint alleges. “And the AO has further compounded those harms by discouraging fee waivers, even for pro se litigants, journalists, researchers, and nonprofits; by prohibiting the free transfer of information by those who obtain waivers; and by hiring private collection lawyers to sue people who cannot afford to pay the fees.”

This case is the first to challenge PACER’s fee schedule by parties represented by counsel, the complaint says. A now-dismissed pro se action also challenged the fees but was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. Two other pending lawsuits allege that PACER overcharges its users due to a systemic billing error, but those lawsuits do not challenge the fee schedule itself, the complaint says.

PACER charges 10 cents a page, up to a maximum of $3, for access to case documents and docket sheets. For transcripts, it charges 10 cents a page with no cap. For audio files of court hearings, it charges $2.40 per file.

The lawsuit was filed under the Little Tucker Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a), which, according to the complaint, “provides jurisdiction to recover an illegal exaction by government officials when the exaction is based on an asserted statutory power.”

You can read the full complaint here complaint here.

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  • avon

    They say “information wants to be free” to justify a fee-free Internet. And information may indeed want that. But certainly, those in custody of information nevertheless have incentives to “monetize” it. Legal limits are necessary, at least where the information belongs to the public. 10 cents (originally 6 cents when PaCER was created, if I recall correctly) may have been justified by PACER’s operating costs back in the 1990s, but now technology is so much cheaper – and filed documents are so commonly in electronic form already.

    So the price should indeed be dropping, regardless of any diversion of moneys to other purposes, and without the need for any lawsuit! In New York State, e-filed documents are free … and I haven’t heard any moaning or groaning about that from the Office of Court Administration. The mere existence of PACER surely saves the government (as well as the Bar) a fortune in staff services, inefficient court appearances, etc. that could reasonably be deemed sufficient value to the AO even if the fees were zero.