Filing the Complaint

Civil cases do not involve an allegation by the government that an individual or entity violated the criminal laws of the United States. Civil cases begin when a plaintiff – the party seeking relief – files a complaint. The act of informing individuals or businesses about a complaint filed against them is called service of process. Generally, a lawsuit must be filed in the jurisdiction where the defendant resides or where the claim arose.

The complaint states the claim that the plaintiff is making – why he, she, or it is entitled to relief. And it states the kind of relief sought. There are three principal forms of relief:

  • Declaratory judgment: a decision of the court that determines the rights of parties without ordering anything be done or awarding monetary damages.
  • Injunction: a court order requiring the defendant to do a specific act or prohibiting a defendant from doing a specific act. If a true emergency exists, a temporary restraining order (TRO) can be issued without even providing notice of the lawsuit to the defendant; a TRO can last no more than 10 days. A preliminary injunction is similar to a TRO, except that the defendant must receive notice of the lawsuit before the preliminary injunction is issued. The preliminary injunction (sometimes informally referred to as a temporary injunction) stays in effect until a hearing can be held, or sometimes until after a trial. If the plaintiff is successful at trial, a permanent injunction would be issued.
  • Monetary relief: money damages meant to make the plaintiff “whole” for the wrongdoing of the defendant. The two most common types of monetary relief are compensatory and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are intended to compensate the injured party for his or her loss. Special damages are a subset of compensatory damages; they represent the direct costs of the wrongdoing, such as hospital bills or wages lost while being treated. General damages are also a result of the wrongdoing, but are subjective in amount, such as awards for the plaintiff’s pain and suffering or a payment for his or her mental anguish. Some contracts anticipate a breach of the agreement and stipulate how much will be awarded in the event a party reneges on the deal; these are called liquidated damages. There are also cases where a wrong was committed by the defendant, but the plaintiff suffered almost no harm; nominal damages, such as an award of $1, are made in such cases. Punitive damages are awarded to punish the defendant and are a warning to others who would consider undertaking similar conduct. Treble damages are a variation of punitive damages – triple the amount of the plaintiff’s actual losses.

Motions Against the Complaint

Although most defenses to a complaint must be stated in the answer, a defendant has the option of asserting certain defenses in the form of a motion to dismiss the complaint before filing the answer.

Motions to dismiss the complaint typically make one or more of the following arguments:

  • The court lacks the power to decide the subject matter of the case or to compel a defendant to appear.
  • Service of process was defective.
  • The complaint fails to state a claim that the law will recognize as enforceable.

Pretrial Conferences and Hearings

Once the defendant has filed his or her answer or motion to dismiss the complaint, the judge assigned the case will hold a pretrial conference. The conference typically lasts less than an hour. A schedule for discovery – the exchange of information between opposing parties – is generally set at this conference, and a trial date is sometimes also scheduled at this point.

Most motions filed in civil cases involve disputes about whether a party is entitled to receive certain kinds of information prior to trial. While these motions are a part of the case file, the actual information in dispute is almost never filed with the court. During discovery, the parties may take numerous depositions of people involved in the dispute. In a deposition, the witness is under oath and asked questions by the attorneys for both sides, much as they would be if they were on the witness stand in court. This testimony sometimes may be introduced during the trial.

When either party files a pretrial motion, the judge may choose to hold a hearing. However, if the judge believes the motion papers are sufficiently clear that the issue can be decided without an oral presentation, no hearing will be held.

After discovery, the judge will hold a final pretrial hearing. Usually, the hearing is a conference between the judge and the parties to discuss the issues that will be tried and the evidence that is to be used at trial. The judge also will usually require that a pretrial order be submitted by the parties, in which the trial plans of the parties are set forth in writing. The purpose is to help the judge and the parties understand exactly what issues will be important at the trial, and to work out possible solutions to problems before the trial begins. Parties frequently discuss settling their case during this final pretrial phase, and it is not uncommon for judges to strongly encourage them to resolve the dispute before trial.

Ending the Case Without a Trial

A trial is necessary only when there are disputed issues of fact. After the discovery period has
ended, it may become apparent that the facts in the case are not in dispute, and one or more parties may file a motion for summary judgment.

After the motion for summary judgment and the response have been filed, the judge, generally without conducting a hearing, will decide whether or not to grant the motion. If the judge grants the motion in whole, the case will be over and judgment will be entered in favor of the party who moved for summary judgment. If the judge grants the motion in part, only the issues that are in dispute will be tried, and those issues on which summary judgment was granted will not be. If the judge denies the motion, the case will be set for trial. The parties also may resolve their dispute by settlement, without court intervention. The overwhelming majority of civil cases are settled prior to trial.

The Trial

The plaintiff’s lawyer goes first in opening statements, followed by defense counsel, and the plaintiff’s witnesses appear first. Unlike criminal juries, which can only find a defendant guilty if the evidence is beyond a reasonable doubt, civil juries find the facts based on the preponderance of the evidence standard – that is, it is more likely than not that factual issues supporting the plaintiff’s claims have been proven to be true.

Source: Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts