The legal process from the filing of a complaint to the conduct of a trial and appeal is commonly called “litigation.” This summary will introduce you to the general legal process once a lawsuit is filed.
The state and federal courts have sophisticated Rules of Civil Procedure and Rules of Evidence which must be strictly followed. Failure to do so can result in dire consequences to your case. It is imperative that you contact a lawyer immediately if you are sued or even think you are being sued. Once a lawsuit is filed and served on you, very strict deadlines must be met to avoid a default judgment against you or the loss of certain rights.
Persons or legal entities (e.g., corporations) who sue or are sued are called “parties.” Those subpoenaed or called to testify in trial or at a deposition are witnesses, and may or may not also be a party. The party who brings the suit is the “plaintiff” or sometimes “petitioner”; and the party being sued is the “defendant” or sometimes “respondent.” If the defendant responds that the plaintiff also owes the defendant some remedy, the defendant can become a “counter-plaintiff” or “counterclaimant” and the plaintiff becomes a “counter-defendant.” There are a host of other terms for other parties involved in more complex lawsuits, such as intervenors and third-party plaintiffs/ complainants.
A civil lawsuit is commenced by the filing of a complaint. When this happens, the complaint is filed with the court and then served on the opposing parties, usually in-person to you at home or work by a deputy sheriff or other authorized person, but sometimes by mail or on a spouse or co-worker. Exactly what is served on you, when it is served and how it is done is very important to protecting your rights, so should it happen to you, pay special attention as to who, when, where and how it is done – and contact an attorney immediately.
The Complaint must be answered in writing within a specified time (within 20 or 30 days after service depending on the court). Such a response to a Complaint (called an “Answer”) must be mailed or delivered to the other side within the specified time period and must be filed with the court referenced in the Summons and Complaint. Failure to timely answer a Complaint will deprive you of the right to object to the claim or defend the allegations in it or assert claims you may have against the other side. Further the court may grant the other side whatever they have sought in the Complaint, including a money judgment.
Courts and Jurisdiction
There are federal and state courts, each with different limits on what subjects, persons and geographic areas the court can reach and address. While there can be exceptions, suits are generally brought in the county or judicial district where the defendant resides or has its principal place of business or registered agent.
In North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, if your civil dispute involves federal law or is against a party residing outside of North Carolina and exceeds $75,000, it can be litigated in federal court. Federal litigation can be expensive, complex and often has much shorter deadlines for responding and litigating your case.
In Tennessee, the state is divided into three federal districts – Western, Middle and Eastern – with federal district courts in Chattanooga, Greeneville, Jackson, Knoxville, Memphis, Nashville and Winchester. There are a variety of state courts in Tennessee, but most litigation will be brought in one of the following courts: General Sessions, Circuit and Chancery. In General Sessions courts, the civil suit must be for $25,000 or less. General Sessions will also entertain certain types of cases, such as landlord-tenant evictions. General Sessions courts are designed to be more simple and streamlined than Circuit and Chancery courts, meaning there is usually less “discovery” (exchange of documents and information) and written pleadings and motions (formal documents filed with the court and served on the parties) and parties can more easily represent themselves without an attorney. Circuit and Chancery courts can be much more formal and difficult to navigate without an attorney.
While not technically “courts,” there are other court-like tribunals and forums other than state and federal courts where your dispute might be heard and resolved. Many state, county and local governmental civil disputes may initially be heard at administrative or agency hearings. Classic examples include worker’s compensation, unemployment, discrimination, taxes, permitting, licensing and environmental disputes.
Finally, some disputes may be heard and resolved in mediations or arbitrations, which may or may not be affiliated with courts. Many businesses find mediations and arbitrations to be a useful way to avoid the costs and risks of court.
Judge and Jury
Not all cases are heard by a jury, and sometimes you might not want them to be. In a jury trial, the judge essentially referees the proceedings and rules on evidence and procedure but the jury makes the final decision or “verdict” or “judgment.” A “bench trial” is a case heard by the judge as decision-maker with no jury present. It can sometimes be faster and easier, but not always preferred.
Representing one’s self in court is generally called “pro se” representation. If they choose, Individual, “natural persons”, may represent themselves in court without hiring attorney. It is not always the wisest decision, but an option. A business operating as a sole proprietorship is essentially an individual or natural person and can also represent itself in court. If you are uncertain as to whether you can or should represent yourself in a lawsuit or dispute, please call an attorney to advise you.
Discovery and Evidence
The process of exchanging documents and information with the other side in a civil lawsuit is commonly called “discovery.” The most common tools for doing this include:
- Interrogatories: Written questions by one side that must be answered in writing by the other side within a certain number of days.
- Requests for Production of Documents (RPD): Written, detailed request from the other side to supply copies of certain relevant documents within a certain number of days.
- Depositions: Usually oral questions and answers of persons under oath. Depositions look much like examinations of witnesses in a courtroom, but they are usually held in a conference room, not the courthouse, with no judge or jury present. The testimony is recorded in writing or on video and may or may not be shown in part or in whole to the judge and jury later at trial.
- Requests for Admissions: These are much like interrogatories, but read like a true-false exam. Items not denied are treated as admitted so it is important that you timely respond.
- The information you present to the court – by witnesses, documents, or physical objects — is evidence. Some is admissible and some is not, depending on the judge’s rulings. Do not assume that everything you want to say or show will be heard or permitted by the court.
If you lose your dispute in a trial court, you might still be able to appeal to a higher court or tribunal. However, not all disputes can be appealed. And some can only be appealed if a court gives you permission. In some instances, the appeal is permitted only if you raised a proper objection first at the trial court. In almost all instances, an appeal must be made fairly and promptly after the adverse ruling by the trial court, often in only days.
If you are involved in potential or pending litigation of any type, you may need our help. If you hire Merritt Webb, our trial lawyers will aggressively represent your interests and do everything we can to ensure that you receive justice before any court, tribunal or agency where you appear. If you need our help in any kind of trial, call us at 1.800.556.8404.
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