Responding to a Lawsuit

Responding to a Lawsuit

Last updated: July 2011

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A lawsuit begins when you receive a summons and a complaint. The summons states that a suit has been filed against you, the defendant, and that you must appear in court. A complaint states what the person who is suing you, the plaintiff, thinks you have done wrong. When you are sued, you usually must do certain things, including:Filing an appearance or answer to the complaintGoing to court to defend the caseWhen you are sued you are not required to have a lawyer, but it is always best if you can have one. If you can’t afford a private lawyer, there are organizations you can contact to get free legal help.Click on words that appear like 'this' to learn what these words mean.How does a lawsuit start? A lawsuit starts when a person or company files a summons and a complaint (or a petition). The person or company that brings the lawsuit is called the plaintiff (or petitioner). If the lawsuit is filed against you, you are the defendant (or respondent).The summons lets you know that a lawsuit has been brought against you. The summons also explains what you must do to respond to the lawsuit. The complaint lets you know what the lawsuit is about. It states the plaintiff's facts about the case, the law which the plaintiff is basing its claim, and tells you what the plaintiff is asking for. How do I know if I am being sued? You will be served, normally by Certified Mail, a sheriff, with the summons and complaint.To find out if you were properly served see the information in the "Related Articles" section or talk to a lawyer before the deadline listed on the summons for filing your appearance. See the the "Helpful Organizations" section to find free legal help. What is an appearance? Usually, the first step in responding to the summons and the complaint is to file an appearance.An appearance form is a written document that you fill out and file with the court clerk. The appearance tells the court and the other parties that you are responding to the lawsuit.What is an answer? The answer is your response to the complaint. In the answer, you say for each statement in the complaint, whether you:Agree with it(admit) Disagree with it (deny)Don't know if it's trueDo I have to file an appearance and answer? If you are properly served with a summons, you must file an appearance and an answer to protect your rights in most types of civil cases. In almost every case, you will have to file an appearance by the return date.There are 2 types of cases where you do not have to file an answer unless the court orders you to file one. These 2 exceptions are:If the lawsuit is for $10,000 or less, you don't have to file an answer in Cook County. These cases are called "small claims."If you are a defendant in an eviction case, you don't have to file an answer. In small claims and eviction cases, you must file an appearance by the return date and go to court on the trial or hearing date.In all other types of cases, if you were properly served, you must file a written appearance and answer before your first hearing in a courtroom.Do I need the help of a lawyer? You are not required by law to have a lawyer. But, it is always best to get one if you can. This is especially true if the plaintiff is represented by a lawyer. If you can't afford a private lawyer, go to the "Find Legal Help" section to find free legal help.You should try to talk to a lawyer before you file any papers in court. You may have specific legal defenses that could help you win the case. But, these defenses might accidentally be waived if they are not mentioned in your appearance and answer. If you decide to talk to a lawyer, make sure to give yourself enough time to meet the deadline for filing the appearance.How much time do I have to file an appearance and answer? In general, the summons will tell you when you need to file an appearance or an answer. This will be either the "return date" or will be 30 days after you are served with the complaint.Some cases, such as small claims cases, require an appearance but do not require an answer.More specifically:If the lawsuit is for more than $10,000 but less than $50,000, the summons will tell you the date by which you must file your appearance. This is called the return date. You need to file an appearance or an answer on or before this date. If you file an appearance first, you have 10 more days, after the original return date, to file an answer. If the suit is less than 10,000, you will be in small claims court. Read the summons, it will tell you if you need to go to the courthouse ready for trial on the date listed, or simply file an appearance on that day. Usually, you just need to show up in the courthouse on the date it lists. For these cases, you do not need to file an answer. In lawsuits for more than $50,000, the summons will state that you must file an answer or file an appearance within 30 days after the day you were served. You may want to talk to a lawyer before filing an answer or an appearance in a case for more than $50,000. If you only file an appearance, the judge or clerk will tell you when you need to file an answer.Do I have to send copies of my appearance and answer to the plaintiff? Yes. After you file your answer and appearance, you must mail copies to the other party. If the plaintiff is represented by a lawyer, send the copies to their lawyer at the address on the complaint. If they are not represented by a lawyer, send the answer and appearance directly to the plaintiff. If the plaintiff is a corporation then they must be represented by an attorney.What happens if I don't file an appearance and answer? If you do not file an appearance and an answer within the time limit, the plaintiff can automatically win. The judge will enter a default judgment against you. The plaintiff can get a court judgment for the amount of money that they asked for in the complaint. If a judgment is entered against you, the plaintiff may then bring a new lawsuit to take the amount of money that they won from your bank account, paycheck, or other property.What should I do if a default judgment is entered against me? If you miss a time limit or file your appearance or answer late, you should talk to a lawyer right away. Click on the "Find Legal Help" tab to find free legal help.If the court enters a default judgment against you, there are strict deadlines for vacating a default judgment (getting rid of the default judgment entered against you) and re-opening the case. For more information, see “Vacating a Default Judgment Against Me.” How do I request a jury trial? If you want your case to be heard by a jury if or when it goes to trial, then you must file a request for a jury trial. This is called a "jury demand." In general, if you want a jury, you should request one the first time you file something with the clerk so you don't miss your chance.In lawsuits for more than $10,000, you must file your jury demand no later than the date that you file your answer. In lawsuits for $10,000 or less, you must request a jury trial on or before you appear in court. You can use the jury demand that is attached to the appearance form, or the separate jury demand form, in the "Forms/Letters" section. If you file your request for a jury trial by these deadlines, then the judge must grant you a jury trial.When you file your appearance, ask the cashier to stamp your appearance with the stamp that says "JURY" in large letters. Or, if the lawsuit is for more than $10,000, you can file a separate jury demand form before or at the time you file your answer. Note that you will have to pay an extra fee to have a jury trial. If you can't afford to pay, then you can ask a judge to waive this fee, along with your other court costs. Go to the "Related Articles" section to learn more about waiving your court costs.How do I know when I need to be in court? The clerk of the court will notify you, usually when you file your appearance, of the first day you must actually go to the courtroom. The judge may hold a trial on the first court date, unless the judge "continues" (reschedules) the hearing. You must go to all court hearings. If you miss court, the judge will enter a default judgment against you.Read the Summons and Complaint When you receive the summons and complaint (or petition) read them carefully to make sure you understand who is bringing a lawsuit against you and why.The summons lets you know that a lawsuit has been brought against you and it explains what you have to do to respond;The complaint tells you what the lawsuit is about and what the plaintiff is asking for.Make Sure You Were Properly Served When a lawsuit is brought against you, you will be served with copies of the summons and complaint. In most cases, you should be served by Certified Mail, the Sheriff or by a special process server.Decide if You Have to File an Answer There are some cases for where you don't have to file an answer unless the court orders you to do so. These include:If you are a defendant in a small claims lawsuit (for $10,000 or less)If you are a defendant in an eviction lawsuitIn all other kinds of cases you must file an appearance and answer or other response to the complaint. If you don't file an appearance and answer, or other response, within the required time limit, the plaintiff can automatically win and get a judgment against you.Determine When You Must File Your Appearance and Answer The summons form will tell you where and when you must file your Appearance and Answer. Usually it is within 30 days of being served with the Appearance and Summons. If you don't file your appearance before or on the return date, a default judgment can be entered against you.Prepare and File Your Appearance and Answer Preparing:Fill out an appearance form. You can find this form along with instructions for filling it out in the "Forms/Letters" section. If your county's forms are not there, you can pick them up at your courthouse clerk's office. In Chicago, you can get this form in either Room 602, 801, or 802 of the Daley Center, depending on the type of case;If you use the appearance from the "Forms/Letters" section, you will need to make 3 copies of it. If you pick up at the your courthouse, it will come with carbon copies. Filing:File the appearance with the court clerk on or before the return date. The return date is found on the upper right corner of the summons;If you were granted a fee waiver, bring your fee waiver form to the cashier;To request a jury trial, you must either ask the cashier to stamp your appearance with "JURY" when you file your appearance. Or, if the lawsuit is for $10,000 or more, you may file a separate jury demand form anytime before or at the time you file your answer;Ask the clerk to stamp the original and return the stamped copies to you;Make sure all your copies have all the necessary stamps before you leave the cashier's window.If you can't afford to pay the filing fees and the jury demand fee, you can apply to have the costs waived.See "Filing Court Papers For Free" in the "Related Articles" section of this guide to learn more about not having to pay to file.Mail a Copy of Your Appearance to the Plaintiff If the plaintiff is represented by an attorney, you must mail a copy of the appearance and answer to the attorney. If the plaintiff is not represented by an attorney, you must mail the copy to the plaintiff. The address that you should mail it to should be on the complaint form;When you mail the copy of the appearance and answer, send it by certified mail with a return receipt. The post office will return the green return receipt to you, proving that the form was delivered to other party. Bring this receipt with you to court;Keep one copy of the appearance and answer for yourself.

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