Locating a corporation’s public records serves a number of important purposes. Public records will help you understand a business’s credentials and reputation and will allow you to learn important information regarding ownership, corporate relationships, affiliations and past legal problems. Public records are generally maintained by government agencies and include real estate records, professional licenses, liens, judgments and court records. Being able to effectively find a company’s public records is an important skill for both business managers and investors.
Establish accounts with PACER, a government database of U.S. appellate, district and bankruptcy court records and documents, and with LexisNexis, an online search engine that pulls records from a variety of databases and sources. An account with PACER is free, while a yearlong subscription to LexisNexis costs $300.
Search for court cases or filings using PACER. From the homepage, select the U.S. Party/Case Index link, which will provide an index of all civil and criminal cases filed in federal and state courts around the nation. You can scan the index for a specific company or individual name you are interested in, or you can enter the name in the search box at the top of the page. Be sure to run several different searches using variations of the name you are seeking.
Cross-reference the case you locate from PACER by searching for cases on the division of corporation Web site of the state in which the case was filed. If you find a case filed in a California court, you should visit the Web site for California’s division of corporations and conduct an independent search for the same case to ensure that the case you pulled from PACER is the most up-to-date filing.
Visit the government’s Excluded Parties List System Web site (see Resources below) and search for companies or individuals barred from receiving federal contracts or federal financial assistance. Such information will be extremely useful if you plan on doing business with a company. Select the Multiple Names link on the left side of the homepage and run several searches using variations of the company’s or individual’s name.
Search for government filings using LexisNexis, which will search for public, nonlegal filings with a variety of government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor and many others. Click the “Government Filings” button at the top of the LexisNexis search page and enter the name of the party in which you are interested.
Pull Securities and Exchange Commission filings using the EDGAR database. (See Resources below.) EDGAR is a search tool that allows you to access public financial reports, such as annual and quarterly reports and reports regarding material business developments. Select the “Search for Company Filings” link, then the “Company or Fund Name” link and enter the company name (or ticker symbol, if you have it) in the search box.
State laws often regulate public records for businesses. Because state laws vary, you may be able to locate certain types of records in some states, but not in others.
Be sure that any records you obtain have been made public legally. An example of private information becoming public illegally is if an employee leaks confidential information about his employer. Always pull information directly from a government database, or verify that the original source for any documents obtained through a third-party search engine (such as LexisNexis) is a government database. All documents obtained through a third-party search should contain the original source at the top of the first page.