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What are “Pleadings” in a civil lawsuit?
Pleadings are the legal documents that parties use to communicate their grievances and responses to each other and to the court. In summary, they are used to start the litigation process. The pleadings consist of the following documents:
Summons – The summons is the document notifying a defendant of the pending litigation and directing her to respond or appear before the court on a given date.
- Note: Recall that service of process (delivery of the summons) is the basis for a court exercising personal jurisdiction over a defendant.
Complaint – The complaint lays out the plaintiff’s legal grievances or causes of action against the defendant. It must state legally recognized causes of action and be specific enough to allow the defendant to adequately respond (answer) to those allegations. Generally, the complaint lays out the following:
- identification of plaintiff and defendant,
- the basis for the court’s subject-matter jurisdiction,
- the basis for service of process (court’s personal jurisdiction),
- the cause(s) of action against the defendant(s), and
- the request for damages (or other legal or equitable remedy).
Answer – The answer is the defendant’s response to the complaint. The defendant will generally address every point in the complaint in one of the three following ways:
- Admit – Admit the truth of an individual point in the allegation,
- Deny – Deny the truth of the allegation, or
- Lack of Information – Claim a lack sufficient knowledge to admit or deny the allegation.
The defendant may present a counterclaim against the plaintiff. This generally happens within the defendant’s answer to the plaintiff’s complaint. The parties may also include motions requesting action from the court outside of the complaint and answer.
Default & Default Judgments
Under state and federal law, a defendant has a stated period of time to respond to the plaintiff’s complaint. Most jurisdictions allow 30 days to respond. Many jurisdictions also allow an extended period of time to answer the complaint if the defendant is willing to accept service of the summons and complaint by some method other than personal delivery. For example, the statute may allow for 60 days to respond if the defendant accepts service of process through the mail. If the defendant fails to respond within the allowed period of time, the court will deem the defendant in default. This generally results in the court rendering a default judgment in favor of the plaintiff. Subject to the court’s review and discretion, the default judgment will award the defendant the legal or equitable remedies sought in the complaint. A defendant who defaults may be able to later petition the court to set aside the entry of default and judgment. To do so, however, the defendant must provide the court with a justifiable reason for setting aside the default and letting the defendant answer the complaint.
Discussion: Do you believe that holding a defendant in default is a justifiable action for failure to respond to the initial pleadings? If not, what would be another manner of compelling a response from the defendant?
- Some might argue that holding the defendant liable for failure to respond to pleadings is unduly harsh. Others may argue that it is justifiable. The rationale is that the court must install severe consequences for a failure to proceed in accordance with the rules of trial. The court, of course, retains the authority to disregard a default judgment for cause or valid justification. As such, a defendant can set aside the judgment and provide reasons and evidence as to why she failed to respond to the complaint in a timely manner. This procedural aspect ensures that the parties to litigation are protected and the court process is not abused.
Practice Question: Olivia receives a summons and complaint from a process server. The documents indicate that Matthew is suing Olivia for breach of contract. Olivia is annoyed by the situation. She replies to the complaint in a long letter that describes a tort that Matthew committed against her several years ago. She fails to address any of Matthew’s allegations against her for breach of contract. If this is the only response that Olivia makes to the summons and complaint, what is the likely result?
- The likely result is that Olivia’s response will be treated as a counterclaim. This is because, she has brought up a new issue against Mathew which was not part of the existing claims. With regard to her failure to address the allegations in Matthew’s complaint, the court may deem them to be uncontested — and therefore, true. This failure could result in a judgment in favor of Matthew on the uncontested claims.
Kourlis, Rebecca Love and Singer, Jordan M. and Knowlton, Natalie Anne, Reinvigorating Pleadings (December 4, 2009). Denver University Law Review, Vol. 87, No. 2, 2010. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1518499
Marcus, Richard, The Puzzling Persistence of Pleading Practice. Texas Law Review, Vol. 76, 1998. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=140419
Parness, Jeffrey A., Groundless Pleading and Certifying Attorneys in the Federal Courts (1985). Utah Law Review, Vol. 1985, No. 325, 1985. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3129104
St. Eve, Amy and Zuckerman, Michael A., The Forgotten Pleading (August 2013). The Federal Courts Law Review, Volume 7, Issue 1 (Aug. 2013). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2320685
Steinman, Adam, The Pleading Problem (May 18, 2010). Stanford Law Review, Vol. 62, No. 5, p. 1293, May 2010. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1442786
Pardo, Michael S., Pleadings, Proof, and Judgment: A Unified Theory of Civil Litigation (March 1, 2010). Boston College Law Review, Vol. 51, 2010; University of Alabama Public Law Research Paper No. 1585331. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1585331
Maxeiner, James R., Pleading and Access to Civil Procedure: Historical and Comparative Reflections on Iqbal, a Day in Court and a Decision According to Law (March 26, 2010). Penn State Law Review, Vol. 114, p. 1257, 2010; University of Baltimore School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1579196