What’s an “answer” to a complaint?

November 29th, 2010  |  Published in basics

When a person gets sued, as part of the paperwork they originally get is a notice that says something along the lines of “You must answer this complaint in ____ days. If you fail to answer or otherwise appear, a judgment may be entered against you.” The number of days you have to answer the complaint will depend on what type of court you’re being sued in (state or federal) and what type of case it is. For example, in Oregon, for most civil cases in state court, you have 30 days to file the answer.

I’ve already talked a little about what a default judgment is in an October 2009 post.

Before I explain a little more what an answer looks like and what it does, I want to be clear that I don’t recommend that you file an answer yourself. My explanation below is doesn’t address all the subtleties and traps involved in creating an answer. Also, you only file the answer if you’re litigating the case and it’s a very difficult thing to do successfully without an attorney.

That being said, I think it’s important to understand the concept of what an answer is: basically, it’s your response (or answer) to what’s in the complaint. A complaint consists of paragraphs, each of which should contain some information about what the case is about — for example, it should identify the plaintiff (the person bringing the lawsuit) and the defendant (the person being sued). It should state the facts that support the plaintiff’s right to bring the lawsuit, identify what type of law or legal theory the plaintiff is using and also what kind of result the plaintiff wants (also known as the “relief”). Usually these paragraphs are numbered.

The answer responds the facts in each paragraph. There are three basic responses: admit that the facts are true; deny that the facts are true; or say that you don’t know if the facts are true or not. Usually, if you deny the facts you have to say why — i.e., it happened a different way, or this didn’t  happen at all. The answer should also raise all your defenses and also any counterclaims. Defenses are reasons why the plaintiff’s case won’t succeed. Counterclaims are new claims that you are bringing against the plaintiff in response to their lawsuit.

Being sued v. being threatened with a lawsuit

November 20th, 2009  |  Published in basics, legal system

I think it’s hard sometimes for people to figure out whether someone has actually sued them or whether they’ve just been threatened with a lawsuit. Here are some ways to tell.

You’ve been sued when someone has filed a complaint with the court. In order for the lawsuit to properly begin, you have to be “served” with the complaint. Being served means that you got “official” notice of the lawsuit. I’ll talk about the different types of proper service in another post.

Keep in mind that each court has its own rules about what exactly needs to happen to start a lawsuit — the things I talk about below are general rules, but your state might tweak them slightly. Also, some types of lawsuits, such as restraining orders or protection from abuse order, can start before you actually get notice of them.

You can tell it’s a complaint because at the top of the first page, it will have the name of a court (as in “In the Circuit Court of the State of Oregon for the County of Multnomah), the name of the person suing you and your name.

Usually, the complaint will have something called a “summons.” This paper is usually in front of the complaint and tells you you’re being sued, tells you that you should respond within a specific period of time, and gives you information about getting an attorney — usually the number of the state bar’s referral service and/or legal aid.

If you get a letter from an attorney threatening to take legal action against you, that doesn’t mean you’ve been sued. You might be, but the letter isn’t enough to start a lawsuit.

Pro se

October 6th, 2009  |  Published in basics, legal system

When a person is not represented by a lawyer in court, then that person is acting pro se.  Pro se means “for oneself” in Latin. In some legal proceedings, like divorces or probate (handling a person’s affairs after they’ve died)  many people appear pro se. Sometimes the court will have written instructions or special forms to help people who are pro se. If you don’t see any forms available, you should ask the clerks (people who work at the courthouse and handle filings). Ask nicely — if the clerks deal with a lot of pro se people, they will appreciate it if you are polite to them.

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October 2nd, 2009  |  Published in basics

scales_dreamstime_10249487Welcome to Lawsense — in this blog, I try to explain the  law and the legal system so that everyday folk who may find themselves caught up in a lawsuit can understand what’s going on. I’m only going to talk about civil law, not criminal law, because I don’t practice criminal law.

So this leads me to my first topic — what’s the difference between criminal law and civil law? The easiest answer is that civil law is everything that’s not criminal law. Another way to think of it is that civil law deals with disputes between people and criminal law deals with disputes between the State (i.e. the police, the prosecutor, the government) and people.