Legal Skills Guides: American Law Reports - California Western
Using American Law Reports


The Problem:

A major client's son, who attends a public middle school, is being teased in a sexual manner by one of his male classmates. The school says that because the teasing is by a fellow male student, it can't constitute "sexual harassment," and that "boys will be boys" and the son just needs to get a thicker skin. The son is starting to dread going to school. Your job: to find some useful law which will encourage the school to take this situation seriously. Your helpful law librarian suggests James Rapp's excellent seven-volume set, Education Law (Matthew Bender, 1984). But -- oh no! -- the volume you need is out. Will you have to do some needle in a haystack Westlaw or Lexis search to find a relevant case, which will turn out to be from Idaho in 1972? No! This is the time to go to American Law Reports, or "the ALRs," a series of reporters begun in 1919 (and now up to its sixth "series") which contain "annotations" (really, they're like very detailed law review articles) on over 27,000 legal topics.


What is an ALR annotation?

Each ALR annotation addresses a single legal issue. The author discusses the most important cases and state or federal statutes governing that issue, and also points you to places where the issue is discussed in other research and practice sources, such as American Jurisprudence, Corpus Juris Secundum, L.Ed's Federal Procedure (which we don't have), Am Jur Proof of Facts, Am Jur Pleading and Practice Forms, and the L.Ed and ALR Digests.

In addition, annotations will usually include a list of law review articles on the topic, and may even give you West Digest key numbers and sample Westlaw and Lexis search queries, to help you find more cases. Finally, the annotation will include a list of other, related annotations, which may help you find one that is even more relevant to your issue.

The ALRs are all on the second floor, with the regional reporters and digests. If you look at them you will find -- yikes! -- the original ALR, as well as its successors, ALR 2d, 3d, 4th, 5th and 6th, and ALR Federal and ALR Federal 2d, hundreds of books altogether.

Why does the library need this many different versions of the ALR (some of them really ancient and out-of-date looking)?

Here's why: while most of the early ALR annotations have been replaced, over time, with new and more updated versions, some have not. For that reason, we still need to keep the older editions of the ALRs. Also, the ALR Federal discusses only federal laws and statutes (guessed that from its title, didn't you?), whereas the regular ALR discusses topics which are affected only by state law, or by a combination of federal and state laws. Note, though, that a topic which is affected by both state and federal law may be discussed in both the regular ALR and the ALR Federal. One of those annotations may be more comprehensive or up-to-date than the other, so you really should find and read both.


How do I find any annotations on my topic?

The ALRs have a ridiculous number of indexes, tables and digests. Fortunately, the indexes of many of the ALRs are combined, and some are overlapping, so you won't have to look at everything.

If you are looking for information regarding a specific federal case, go to the ALR Federal Table of Cases, a group of paperback books at the end of the ALR Federal. Look up your case in the tables, which will then direct you to the most recent annotation about it in the ALR Federal or ALR Federal 2d.

If you are looking for information about a specific state case, try looking in the ALR 5th and 6th Table of Cases, a group of paperback volumes located at the end of the ALR 5th. Keep in mind, however, that these books only include cases which are mentioned in annotations in the ALR 5th and 6th, not the earlier ALRs. Just because you don't find the case in this particular set of books doesn't mean that it isn't discussed somewhere in the ALRs (particularly if it was decided well before 1992, when the ALR 5th was first issued), and you will need to try to look it up by the area of law it addresses, as discussed below.

If you are looking for information on a topic which you know is governed entirely by federal law, but you don't know the specific statute or regulation which may govern it, go to the soft-bound Quick Index at the end of the ALR Federal 2d, and try to find the topic there. If you can't find it, then you will need to ...

... go to the (huge) more detailed, combined ALR Index, which covers the ALR 2d, 3d, 4th, 5th and 6th, and ALR Federal and ALR Federal 2d (the ALR Federals do not have their own detailed index). Make sure you look in the pocket part at the back of whatever index volume you are looking at, so that you will catch any annotations which have been added since the bound volumes were issued -- for example, annotations in the ALR 6th and the ALR Federal 2d, which aren't included in the main volumes at all (unless the index has been reissued since this guide was written).

If you are looking for information regarding a specific state or federal statute or regulation, a uniform or model law (like the Uniform Probate Code), a Restatement section or a code of ethics (like the old Code of Professional Conduct), go to the Table of Laws, Rules and Regulations for the ALR 2d, 3d, 4th, 5th and 6th, and ALR Federal and ALR Federal 2d. This is one hardbound volume at the end of the combined ALR Index, at the very end of the whole set of ALR books. This book contains a collection of tables where you can look up your statute or regulation and be directed to the most recent annotation about it in the ALR 2d, 3d, 4th, 5th and 6th, and ALR Federal and ALR Federal 2d. Again, don't forget to look in the pocket part of whatever index volume you are looking at, or you could miss the perfect annotation.

If you have no idea what laws cover your topic, or even if there IS any law covering the topic, first check the Quick Indexes for both the regular ALR and for the ALR Federal. If you don't find anything in either of these indexes, then go to the big combined ALR Index for the ALR 2d, 3d, 4th, 5th and 6th, and ALR Federal and ALR Federal 2d.

As a last resort, if the issue is very venerable (that is, REALLY OLD), and not some developing area of law, look in the Quick Index and four volume detailed Index of the original ALR. These indexes are located before the newer detailed indexes and tables, at the end of the ALR 6th.

If you happen to have a West "key" (or headnote) number related to your issue, go to the ALR Digest. This is a set of books which classifies all the ALR annotations using the West topic and key number system. This system is discussed in detail in our Legal Skills Guide "Using the West Digest System."



In the "Problem" above...

You probably don't know whether the situation is governed by state law, federal law, or both. So first, you'll want to take a look at the Quick Index at the end of the ALR Federal 2d. The heading "Schools and Education -- Sex and sexual matters -- harassment -- student's peer" (ah ha!), sends you to 141 ALR Fed 407. That is, volume 141 of the original ALR Federal, at page 407. This turns out to be a 37 page annotation entitled "Right of Action Under Title IX of Education Amendments Act of 1972 (20 U.S.C.S. secs. 1681 et seq.) Against School or School District for Sexual Harassment of Student by Student's Peer," by Belinda Bean, J.D. (Great name!). But what if this issue is governed by state laws, too? Best to check the ALR Quick Index at the end of the ALR 2d, 3d, 4th, 5th and 6th.

Keep in mind that this index covers only the regular ALRs, and not the ALR Federals. Interestingly, this index does not have the precise heading "Schools and Education -- Sex and sexual matters -- harassment -- student's peer," which you found in the Quick Index for the ALR Federal, but under the more general heading "Schools and Education -- Sex and sexual matters," and also under the heading ""Schools and Education -- discrimination," you will find the entry "Liability, under state law claims, of public and private schools and institutions of higher learning for teacher's, other employee's, or student's sexual relationship with, or sexual harassment or abuse of, student, 86 ALR5th 1." And if you go to page one of volume 86 of the ALR 5th, you will find a 56 page annotation with just this title. If, on the other hand, you had looked in the combined ALR Index for the ALR 2d, 3d, 4th, 5th and 6th, and ALR Federal and ALR Federal 2d, you would have been referred to both annotations. But either way works, in this case!

You might also have found these annotations using the ALR Digest. Let's say that in your first, desperate moments of trying to find some California law, you did a Westlaw search and found the case Doe v. Petaluma City School District, 949 F. Supp. 1415 (N.D. Cal. 1996), involving a junior high school student who was harassed by her peers. The case itself doesn't solve your problems; it focuses on the narrow issue of the standard for bringing a claim under Title IX, and doesn't really discuss what constitutes harassment in schools; but it does yield a potentially useful key number: Civil Rights (key) 128. If you go to the books in the ALR Digest containing the Civil Rights key numbers -- Wait!! They start at 1001! Is this a cruel joke?

Well, as discussed in our guide "Using the West Digest System," when areas of law grow and change, their West topics are re-numbered. Most digests include conversion tables to help you keep up. Unfortunately the ALR Digest does not, so you will need to go to a regular digest (such as the Federal Practice Digest 4th) to discover that Civil Rights (key) 128 has now become Civil Rights (keys) 1066 and 1067(1-5). But once you do this (and you might take note of the potentially useful cases under those key numbers in the regular digest), a look at the ALR Digest under those key numbers directs you to the annotations we've already discussed, as well as a few more which are less relevant to your issue.

Furthermore, if you had found that Petaluma case, you could also have looked it up in the ALR 5th and 6th Table of Cases, to see if it was discussed in one or more annotations.


Important!! Don't forget to update your research!

The editors of the ALR series are constantly adding new information to their existing annotations, writing new annotations to replace old ones, and generally making changes. Don't run out of the library, clutching photocopies of an annotation, before you've done these things:

First: Check the pocket part in the back of the book where you found your annotation. If your annotation was in the original ALR, there are no pocket parts (had they not invented those handy pockets yet?), so you will need to check in the battered blue ALR Blue Book of Supplemental Decisions, located after the ALR 6th.

If it was in the ALR 2d, look in the blue books entitled ALR 2d Later Case Service, at the end of the ALR 2d. But all the subsequent ALRs and the ALR Federals have pocket parts -- or, if a pocket part has become too big to fit in the back of its book, a pamphlet next to it.

Next: Particularly if your annotation is quite old, check the "Annotation History Table" in the back of the Table of Laws, Rules and Regulations for the ALR 2d, 3d, 4th, 5th and 6th, and ALR Federal and ALR Federal 2d, the hardbound volume at the end of the combined ALR Index. This will tell you if your annotation has been superseded by a more recent annotation, which you (or the index) may somehow have missed. Don't forget to check the pocket part in the back of this volume, too!

Can I search the ALRs online?

What if your boss wants a memo on her desk by the time she gets back from lunch, and you don't have time to go to the library, search the ALRs, and get back? No fear! The ALRs are available on Westlaw, updated weekly, in the "ALR" database (although it may not be included as part of your firm's license, in which case you will pay a $12 fee for each annotation you actually view). A bonus: unlike the print annotations, the online versions are updated weekly, and superseded annotations are generally removed from the database.

Just in case, though, you would be wise to "Keycite" any useful annotation that you find, to make sure that part of it has not been superseded by a subsequent annotation. Another bonus: some annotations are included in the online database which are not included in the books, for whatever reason.

As with any search on Westlaw, you will probably want to try several different queries. In this case, a terms and connectors search of (school or student) /3 "sexual harassment" yielded 66 documents, including, at result 13, "Right of Action Under Title IX of Education Amendments Act of 1972 (20 U.S.C.S. secs. 1681 et seq.) Against School or School District for Sexual Harassment of Student by Student's Peer," 141 ALR Fed 407; and at result 30, "Liability, under state law claims, of public and private schools and institutions of higher learning for teacher's, other employee's, or student's sexual relationship with, or sexual harassment or abuse of, student," 86 ALR 5th 1, which are discussed above; also, at result 36, an annotation entitled "Tort liability of public schools and institutions of higher learning for injuries caused by acts of fellow students," 36 ALR 3d 330, which might also be useful.