Federal court lawsuit once filed involves various stages. The first thing that happens in a lawsuit is that a document, called the complaint, that contains formal allegation(s) by the plaintiff in the case is filed. The plaintiff is the person who brings the lawsuit and files the complaint. The complaint initiates the lawsuit and contains: (1) a statement of the Court’s jurisdiction over the parties, such as “diversity of citizenship” jurisdiction for federal courts (lawsuit between citizens of different states), and the subject matter (facts); (2) a statement of claims/causes of action against the Defendant(s); and (3)request(s) for relief, such as monetary damages. The typical cost of filing the complaint is between $200 and $400.
Service of Process
After the lawsuit is filed with the court, the plaintiff must have it served on the defendant, who is the party in the complaint (lawsuit) against whom the claim/cause of action is brought. Service of the complaint requires notification to the defendant by personal delivery, mail, or publication. Along with the complaint a summons must also be served on the defendant. A summons is a written notice accompanying a complaint (lawsuit), served on the Defendant, notifying that he or she is a party to a lawsuit or other Court action.
Motion to Dismiss
After receiving the service of the complaint, the Defendant must file either an answer to the complaint or a responsive motion. A responsive motion is simply document asking the court to do something. In this case, it would be a document asking the court to dismiss the complaint.
If the Defendant files a motion to dismiss the complaint, the plaintiff will have a short period of time in which to file a written memorandum of law. Such memoranda are usually captioned as “Plaintiff’s Memorandum in Opposition to Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss.” After the opposition memorandum is filed, the Defendant will file a Reply Memorandum. When the reply is filed, the briefing is finished, and additional briefs are generally not filed unless the parties first obtain permission from the Court (what is known as “leave of Court”).
The Court will then proceed to rule on the merits of the motion to dismiss. If the motion is denied, the case proceeds, and the Defendant must file its answer. If the motion is granted, the Court may dismiss some or all of the claims. If all of the claims are dismissed, the plaintiff has the option of considering whether to file an appeal challenging the dismissal.
In some cases, the Court will ask to hear oral argument regarding a motion to dismiss. Usually, however, the Court will rule on a motion to dismiss without hearing oral arguments.
If the case proceeds, then the defendant must file an answer to the remaining claims found in the complaint. In its answer, the Defendant tells what the Defendant believes has happened. Under the rules, an answer must be filed within a given time. Usually, the deadline for filing an answer is twenty (20) days after the Defendant was served with the complaint.
Case Management Conference
After the defendant has filed the answer to the complaint, a case management conference usually will be held where discovery issues will be discussed and resolved, formal discussion of possible settlement will occur, pretrial motions will be discussed, and a trial date will often be scheduled. The Judge will encourage the parties to seek settlement and is normally willing to meet again with them if it encourages settlement.
If a settlement cannot be worked out at the scheduling conference, a formal trial will be scheduled to take place unless a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment is granted. A motion to dismiss a complaint may be granted for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, failure to effect proper service of process, lack of venue or personal jurisdiction, lack of federal subject matter jurisdiction, or for failure to comply with court rules or orders.
The next step is pretrial activities. The most important pretrial activity is probably “discovery.” Discovery allows both the plaintiff and the Defendant to have as much information as allowed under the rules before the Court has decided the case. The most common types of discovery tools are: Depositions, Interrogatories, Requests for Production of Documents, and Admissions are used to gain information from parties. Subpoenas are used to get information from third parties.
Depositions are a method of discovery that allows a party to ask questions of a party opponent (such as the Defendant) or a witness under oath, and the questions and answers are recorded by a court reporter. Court reporters charge for this service and this is usually one of the up front costs of bringing a lawsuit along with the filing fees charged for filing a complaint.
Interrogatories are a discovery tool of written questions used to obtain information about the case. They are served on a party opponent (such as the Defendant) and must be answered under oath.
Requests for production of documents is a discovery tool that enables a party to a lawsuit to inspect documents another party or nonparty has in its possession or control.
Admissions are a discovery (information gathering) tool by which one party to the lawsuit asks another party to admit or deny the truth of certain important facts.
A subpoena is a court order compelling a witness, under the threat of contempt, to appear and testify in Court or at a deposition. A subpoena duces tecum is a type of subpoena issued by a Court to require a witness to produce at a deposition or a trial certain specified documents, papers or items that are about the case and in the witness’ possession or control.
Summary Judgment Motion
After Discovery is over, the court usually gives the parties a time period in which to file dispositive motions i form of a summary judgment motion. Summary judgment motions are almost always filed by defendants in the case. The summary judgment is filed by a party who claims that there is no dispute about the important facts and the moving party is entitled to judgment in his or her favor as a matter of law, thus making it unnecessary to send the case to a jury or bench trial. The judge will grant the summary judgment motion if the Judge considers it unnecessary to go through a trial because there is no dispute about the important facts of the case and the law provides that no relief is warranted. The result of the summary judgment motion is that the case is over. The winner is the person who filed the summary judgment motion and gets it granted.
If the case gets by summary judgment, it will go to trial. There are two types of formal trials. One is a jury trial and the other is a bench trial or a trial before the Judge alone. In a jury trial, a group of people known as the jury (no fewer than six and no more than 12 people) is selected and sworn to decide the merits of the lawsuit under the Judge’s supervision and direction. If a jury trial has not been requested or the case cannot be tried by jury, a bench trial will be ordered. The Judge conducts a bench trial without a jury. The purpose of a trial is to let the jury or the Judge decide whether the evidence favors the plaintiff’s position or favors the Defendant’s. If it favors the plaintiff, they win; if it favors the Defendant, the Defendant wins. After the jury or the Judge makes such a decision, a final judgment will be entered at the Court in the Clerk’s Office. If the parties agree, the trial can be heard before a Magistrate Judge. This could be beneficial in expediting the case to trial since Magistrate Judges cannot preside over criminal trials and, therefore, their trial schedules can provide more of a guaranteed date for the trial to begin.
Throughout the trial and even after the trial, the parties may file various motions to ask from the Judge certain orders favorable to them. For example, a party can make a motion for judgment as a matter of law, after they have presented all their evidence to the jury or the Judge, arguing that they believe that there is only one possible verdict; namely, a verdict in their favor. If after a jury returns a verdict against a party, and they believe the verdict is legally wrong, they can make a motion for judgment as a matter of law, asking the Judge to enter a judgment different from the jury’s verdict. Even if the Judge has entered a final judgment against a party, that party may still make a motion for a new trial within ten (10) days after the entry of an order if they feel there was error of law or fact, or new evidence is discovered.
If the case is lost at any point, the party losing the case can ask an appellate court to review the trial court’s decision. This process is called an appeal. A different set of rules controls the procedures for appeal.