Are you being sued?
Were you handed papers in an envelope by a stranger? Did you receive papers in the mail that looks like an official court notice? When being sued, you first need to decide whether you are going to file a response to the lawsuit, not file a response, or respond to the lawsuit in a different way (i.e., file for bankruptcy protection). It would be a great time to speak with an attorney for advice and direction on whether you should file a response to the lawsuit or explore other options. Other options may include filing for bankruptcy, calling your creditors directly to settle the debt or negotiate a payment plan, and/or evaluate whether you may have a counter-action against the creditor.
After you have been served with a lawsuit you typically have 30 calendar days (including weekends and court holidays) to file a “response” with the court. If the 30th day falls on a day where the court is closed, you have until the next business day that the court is open in order to timely file your response.
If you do not file a “response” to the lawsuit within these 30 days the creditor who sued you can obtain a “default judgment” against you. Having a default judgment entered against you means that you automatically lose the lawsuit, the creditor automatically wins and the creditor can obtain a default judgment against you in the amount of the debt plus interest, attorneys fees, and costs.
When the creditor receives a default judgment against you, the creditor can enforce the judgment by garnishing your wages, levying your bank account, and recording a lien against your home. A judgment can also show up on your credit report.
If you choose to respond to the lawsuit, you need to make sure that you do so within the 30 day deadline from the date you are served with the lawsuit. You may lose your chance to file a response if you do not file within this period.
Different methods of responding to a lawsuit include (1) filing an answer generally denying the allegations and claims the creditor has asserted against you; (2) filing a motion to challenge the appropriateness of service of the lawsuit on you (e.g. you were not properly served with the lawsuit); or (3) filing a motion to attack the legal sufficiency of the lawsuit.
Filing an Answer: An Answer is your formal written statement responding to the lawsuit’s factual allegations and legal claims. In your Answer, you can also assert “affirmative defenses,” facts or legal arguments to support why the lawsuit should fail. Code of Civil Procedure § 431.30(b) explains what type of information should be included in an answer. There are various standardized answer forms that can be used depending on the type of case you have. Click here to access the forms: https://www.courts.ca.gov/forms.htm.
- Answer – Contract (Form PLD-C-010 link: https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/pldc010.pdf)
- Answer – Personal Injury, Property Damage, Wrongful Death (Form PLD-PI-003 link: https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/pldpi003.pdf)
Filing a General Denial: Alternatively, you can file a general denial (Form PLD-050 link: https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/pld050.pdf) which is a standardized form that generally denies everything the plaintiff is claiming. It is a simple check the box form and can be used in many types of civil case matters. However be sure to read the instructions contained on the form for the general denial to confirm this form is appropriate for the facts of your case. More complex cases require more information in the response and may require that a more detailed answer be filed.
Include Your Affirmative Defenses: If you plan to file either an answer or general denial, be sure to also include any affirmative defenses you want to assert. These are defenses that you want the court to consider on your behalf. If you fail to raise a defense in your answer or general denial, the court may prevent you from bringing it up at the time of trial. The reason affirmative defenses must be written into the response to the lawsuit is to ensure all parties know about the claims and defenses in advance of trial so all parties are prepared to address them. A simplified form for reference can be found here: https://saclaw.org/wp-content/uploads/form-attach4.pdf
Each type of response has different legal implications so it is important for you to understand all of the consequences to what you choose to file. If you have questions, you can talk with an attorney who can help you determine what your best legal strategy should be.
File it at the correct courthouse: If you decide to file a response to the lawsuit, you must be sure to file your documents in the same courthouse where the lawsuit was originally filed. You can review the lawsuit that you received and identify the filing court, court address and court case number. When going to the court to file your papers, be sure to bring your original document and 2 copies so that the court can file stamp your copies and return them to you for your file. Note some courts now require that you electronically file your documents, so it is best to contact the court to determine the court’s filing policy.
Do you qualify for a filing fee waiver? The court will require that you pay a fee when filing your response. The amount of your court filing fee can be determined by this fee schedule here (link: https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/StatewideCivilFeeSchedule-20200101.pdf). If you cannot afford to pay the court filing fee, you can ask the court for a fee waiver. The court fee waiver documents can be found here (link: https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/fw001.pdf) and here (link: https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/fw003.pdf). More information and instructions about the court’s fee waiver can be found here (link: https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/fw001info.pdf). Keep in mind, if you are successful in winning your lawsuit, the court may ask that you pay back the waived filing fees.
Serve your response by mail: Now that you have filed your response to the plaintiff’s lawsuit, you must serve a copy of your response on the plaintiff. The easiest way to serve the response is by mail service. Mail your response together with a “Proof of Service” to the plaintiff by regular first class mail. The “Proof of Service” is a simple declaration indicating that you served the documents and also details the method you used to do so. The Proof of Service and instructions can be found here (POS-030 link: https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/pos030.pdf). Make sure to file and serve your response before the 30 day deadline.
Service must be performed by a person 18 years or older. Service cannot be performed by you. A friend or co-workers may be able to help you in this regard. The person serving the documents on your behalf will need to sign the Proof of Service before serving the documents on the plaintiff. If the plaintiff is represented by a lawyer, you should serve your response to their lawyer. The lawyer’s information can typically be found on the lawsuit. If the plaintiff is not represented by a lawyer, you should serve your response on the Plaintiff directly. Make sure the completed proof of service form is also filed with the court and to retain a copy for your records.
In some cases, you may also have a claim for damages against the Plaintiff. Under these circumstances, you may want to consider countersuing the Plaintiff by filing a cross-complaint with your answer to the lawsuit. Keep in mind that if you do pursue a counter claim, you generally must file your cross-complaint at the same time you file your answer.
In considering whether to countersue you should consult with an experienced attorney to review all of your legal options.
Now that you have filed your response or “answer” to the lawsuit, it is time for you to find out what information the plaintiff has to support its claims against you. You are now in the “discovery” phase of the lawsuit which is a time period where each side is able to ask each other for answers to questions and request documents that are related to the lawsuit.
During discovery you may also demand that the plaintiff personally appear for a “deposition” to answer questions under oath regarding the lawsuit. You may also subpoena documents from third parties (who are not a party to the case) to produce records or information about the lawsuit. You may also engage in your own personal research using public records searches, internet searches, interviews, etc., to uncover your own facts related to the lawsuit. The purpose of discovery is to give each party an opportunity to learn more about their opponent’s case, so that they can minimize any surprises and “gotcha” moments at trial.
Written discovery is a quick and inexpensive way to obtain basic information about the case from the opposing party. Written discovery can consist of: (1) Form Interrogatories; (2) Special Interrogatories; (3) Request for Production of Documents; and (4) Request for Admissions.
Interrogatories are just a fancy word for written questions that you have to answer. So it could be things as simple as, “How did you calculate the amount that you claim I owe in the lawsuit?”
In California, the Judicial Council of California has created some basic form questions called “Form Interrogatories.”
The rules for using form interrogatories are found here: https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displayText.xhtml?lawCode=CCP&division=&title=4.&part=4.&chapter=13.&article=1. Form interrogatories must be served on the opposing party together with a proof of service (POS-030 link: https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/pos030.pdf). Here are form interrogatories involving several different legal areas:
- Form Interrogatories – General (*used routinely by all attorneys) (Form DISC-001 link: https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/disc001.pdf)
- Form Interrogatories – Employment Law (Form DISC-002 link: https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/disc002.pdf)
- Form Interrogatories – Limited Civil Cases (Economic Litigation (Form DISC-004 link: https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/disc004.pdf)
- Form Interrogatories – Construction Litigation (Form DISC-005 link: https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/disc005.pdf)
Special interrogatories are crafted by the parties and are generally tailored more exclusively to each individual case. The rules for using special interrogatories are here: https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displayText.xhtml?lawCode=CCP&division=&title=4.&part=4.&chapter=13.&article=1. There is no fill-in-the-blanks form for Special Interrogatories. Instead, you write a list of questions in sequential order. The method used to serve the discovery will dictate when responses must be served.
Requests for Production of Documents and Things is when one party requests certain relevant documents that are currently in the possession of the opposing party. The responding party will supply copies of documents or access to places or things that respond to your requests. The rules for using Requests for Production of Documents and Things are here: https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displayText.xhtml?lawCode=CCP&division=&title=4.&part=4.&chapter=14.&article=1. Using document requests, you can obtain copies of documents such as legal contracts, accounting records, employment records, bank records, video tape recordings, audio recordings, photographs, sketches, expert witness reports, and much more. Be sure to serve your requests for production of documents on the opposing party together with your proof of service.
Requests for Admissions call for the opposing party to admit or deny certain facts under oath. Obtaining these admissions or denials helps determine what aspects of the case are in dispute and can limit the scope of the trial.
For example, in a credit card lawsuit, you may request that the credit card issuer admit that you never signed a contract with them. If the credit card issuer admits this fact, then it could be considered factual at trial that you never signed a contract with them.
Independent Research Tools and References
California Courts – Self-help resource website (link: https://www.courts.ca.gov/selfhelp.htm)
California Superior Court, County of Orange – Self-help resource website (link: https://www.occourts.org/self-help/)
California Superior Court, County of Los Angeles – Self-help resource website (link: http://www.lacourt.org/selfhelp/selfhelp.aspx)
California Superior Court, County of San Bernardino – Self-help resource website (link: https://www.riverside.courts.ca.gov/SelfHelp/self-help.php)
California Superior Court, County of Riverside – Self-help resource website (link: https://www.sb-court.org/self-help)
Sacramento County Public Law Library – Self-help resource website (link: https://saclaw.org/self-help/)
California Superior Court, County of Santa Clara – Self-help resource website (link: https://www.scscourt.org/self_help.shtml)
California Courts – Forms and Rules of Court (link: https://www.courts.ca.gov/formsrules.htm)
California Uniform Statutory Form Power of Attorney (California Probate Code Section 4401) – statutory text (link: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/11-12/bill/asm/ab_1051-1100/ab_1082_bill_20110725_chaptered.pdf)