You’ve Been Sued, Now What?

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You’ve Been Sued, Now What?

May 26, 2020

You’ve been served with a lawsuit – what do I do? Today we walk through the anatomy of a lawsuit from the perspective of a defendant.

You will also experience anger. The complaint will make you mad. There will likely be claims that you did things that you did not do.

The first stage of a lawsuit is the pleading stage, when parties file their claims with the court to initiate the lawsuit. If you’ve never been sued before, your first question may simply be “what does it mean to be served?” When you get served, you receive a copy of the complaint and the summons. The complaint, as its name suggests, lays out the other party’s legal claims, the facts supporting their claims, and the relief they are seeking. The summons simply demands that you appear before the court. In order to initiate a lawsuit, a plaintiff is required to serve the defendant with these documents.

There are specific requirements for properly serving a defendant and several methods by which a defendant can be served. In order to properly serve court documents, a process server who is not party to the case and who is 18 years old or older must serve the paperwork on the other side. See Cal. Civ. Code § 414.10. The most reliable form of service is personal service – this means a process server hands the complaint and the summons directly to you. Cal. Civ. Code § 415.10. Handing the documents to your spouse or your receptionist does not qualify as proper service, unless the process server has attempted to personally serve the documents on you multiple times and has failed to do so.

If a process server has tried to locate you to serve you multiple days of the week at different times of the day when you are likely to be at the given location, the server can then leave the papers with either someone who lives at your residence who is 18 or older or someone at your office who appears to be in charge and is 18 and older; this is known as substituted service. Cal. Civ. Code § 415.20. The process server then must also mail the documents to you at that address. Id. While there are other types of service, such as service by mail and service by publication, these are two of the most common forms of service of process.

Once you have been served, your initial reaction will be panic. What will happen to me? What will happen to my business?

You will also experience anger. The complaint will make you mad. There will likely be claims that you did things that you did not do. Here is where you can help your case and save attorney’s fees. Highlight the things that are not true and start gathering e-mails, texts and documents to prove they are false.

Most importantly, you should not ignore the lawsuit and hope it goes away – this is a quick way to have a court enter a default judgment against you. In California state court, you have 30 days to file a written response with the court, called an answer, and serve it on the plaintiff. Cal. Civ. Code § 412.20(a)(3). If you are in federal court, you have only 21 days to file a response. F.R.C.P. 12(a)(1)(A)(i).  If you also have legal claims against the other party, you may file a cross-complaint, detailing your legal claims, the factual basis for those claims, and the relief requested. Instead of an answer, you can also challenge the complaint with a demurrer, motion to strike, or other motions. However, these take time to prepare so it is important to talk to a lawyer as soon as possible, so that you do not risk missing your deadline to file a response.

Pfeiffer Law Corp is an entertainment law firm based in Santa Monica, California.

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