News & Events

I Don’t Always Notice the Case Number, But When I Do, I Don’t Know What It Means

You just received a complaint filed against your client in federal court.  You log in to Pacer, click the “Query” tab to search for the case, and type in the series of numbers and letters that make up the case number to find the case and review the docket.

Have you ever wondered whether those numbers and letters in the case number have meaning?  And what about the information contained in the header added to each page of every filing in a federal case?  Understanding what this information means can quickly give you some helpful information about your case.

Let’s say the pending case against your client is filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.  At the top of opposing counsel’s Notice of Appearance you see a blue header with this information:

Case 2:20-cv-01234-BBD-dkv     Document 2    Filed 11/22/2020      Page 1 of 2      PageID 26

The first set of information contains the case number: 2:20-cv-01234-BBD-dkv.  Each element of the case number provides useful information about the case.

The leading “2” in the above case number represents the divisional office of the district court in which the case is filed.  Many of the 94 federal judicial districts are split into smaller divisions encompassing specified counties within the district.[1]  For example, the Western District of Tennessee consists of two divisions: the Eastern Division and the Western Division.[2]  Cases filed in the Eastern Division are heard in Jackson, Tennessee, designated by the number “1,” while cases filed in the Western Division are heard in Memphis, Tennessee, designated by the number “2.”

The “20” denotes the year in which the case was filed.  The two letters following the year indicate the case type: civil (“cv”), criminal (“cr”), or miscellaneous (“mc”).  The next five digits represent the numeric value assigned to identify the case.  This number is determined sequentially in relation to how many cases have been filed in that judicial district at the time the case was filed.

Finally, the sets of letters at the end of the case number are the initials of the presiding district judge (capital letters) and magistrate judge (lower case letters) assigned to the case.  Once the complaint is filed, a district judge and a magistrate judge are randomly assigned to the case.  Precisely how judge assignments are made varies by district; generally, each case is randomly assigned a district judge and a magistrate judge from the pool of judges within the division of the district court in which the complaint was filed.

Let’s look back to our hypothetical case number: 2:20-cv-01234-BBD-dkv.  The “2” indicates that the case was filed in the Western Division and will be heard in Memphis, Tennessee.  You can also see that this case was filed in 2020, is an adversary proceeding regarding a civil matter, and that it was the 1,234th case filed in the Western District of Tennessee that year.  Finally, the presiding district judge in this case is Judge Bernice B. Donald and the magistrate judge is Chief Magistrate Judge Diane K. Vescovo.[3]

The remaining information in the header provides you with context regarding the specific document you are viewing.

“Document No.” indicates the entry number of the filing on the docket.  Thus, “Document 2” means this document is the second entry on the docket.  If a document is attached to the filing as an exhibit, it is referenced with a dash after the document number.  For example, if an exhibit were attached to this filing, it would be labeled “Document 2-1.”

“Filed 11/22/2020” means this particular document was filed on November 22, 2020.

“Page 1 of 2” specifies the page number of the page you are viewing within the document itself and informs you of how many pages were filed in this document.  This page is therefore the first page of the document, which contains two pages in total.  Conversely, the “PageID” is a sequential pagination of the entire record for this case that uniquely identifies each page.  Thus, “PageID 26” means you are viewing the twenty-sixth page filed in the entire case.

Understanding this information makes it easier to look up the material you need as the case progresses.  Need to look up a case in federal court?  When typing the case number into the “Query” field, you only need to type in the year and sequential number—you can omit any zeroes preceding the sequential number.  Thus, using the case number above, you would only need to type “20-1234” to find your case.  Need to find a specific document in the case?  You can look it up using the Document No. or the PageID without having to search through the entire docket.

Now, the next time you are in a meeting and someone asks who the judge is, how long the case has been pending, or when a motion was filed, simply remember to look to the heading.


[1] To look up the specific counties comprising each judicial district and whether a judicial district is split into divisions, see 28 U.S.C. §§ 81-131.

[2] See 28 U.S.C. § 123.

[3] The judges referenced in this case number are no longer presiding in the Western District of Tennessee.  The Honorable Bernice B. Donald is currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and the Honorable Diane K. Vescovo retired in May of 2020 after 25 years of service on the bench.  I had the honor of clerking for Judge Donald and Judge Vescovo before joining Butler Snow.