What is the document called that starts a lawsuit?

The complaint is the initial charging document that begins a lawsuit. The plaintiff is the person suing and the defendant is the person being sued. The complaint lays out

A lawsuit document that begins legal action is called a

A lawsuit document that begins legal action is called a "complaint" (iStock).

the parties' names and addresses, the jurisdiction of the court, underlying facts of why there is a suit, the legal claims asserted in the suit and the relief sought by the plaintiff. Each statement in a complaint is given a number. Thus, a complaint is written in number form in different sections. This document is then served on the defendant. This is called service of process.

When served with a complaint, what is the legal responsibility of a defendant?

A defendant must file a response to the complaint—usually within 30 days— called an answer. The answer responds to each and every allegation contained in a complaint. The defendant must admit, deny, or respond that he or she does not have sufficient knowledge to answer the allegation. Many times defendants will admit basic information in a complaint like the parties' names, the court's jurisdiction (sometimes) and a few of the underlying facts (such as plaintiff worked for the defendant) but deny the substance of the allegations and the legal claims.

What types of relief do plaintiffs seek?

Most lawsuits seek some type of monetary relief or damages. Plaintiffs often ask for what are known as compensatory damages—to compensate them for the harm that they have suffered. Often plaintiffs will seek attorneys' fees. This means that the plaintiff wants the court to order the defendant to pay the plaintiff's attorney fees.

Many statutes (such as civil rights, employment discrimination statutes) are fee-shifting statutes in that they allow a prevailing plaintiff (the plaintiff-litigant who wins the case) to have the defendant pay his or her attorney fees. In cases involving alleged egregious or very bad conduct, a plaintiff may also seek what are known as punitive damages.

In other cases, a plaintiff may seek injunctive or declaratory relief. Injunctive relief means that the plaintiff petitions the court to enjoin (or prohibit) the defendant from engaging in certain conduct. Declaratory relief means that the plaintiff asks the court to declare a certain law, regulation, or policy unconstitutional or void. The key point, however, is that the plaintiff must declare the relief he or she is seeking in the complaint.

What happens after a plaintiff files a complaint and a defendant files the answer?

The case then proceeds to what is known as the discovery phase of a case. In discovery, each side uses certain tools—such as interrogatories or depositions—to discover more about the case. If the plaintiff's case is weak, the defense might file a motion to dismiss. Sometimes motions to dismiss are filed in conjunction with an answer or shortly after the answer. Some motions to dismiss are called motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim. This motion asserts that the plaintiff's claim does not advance a recognizable legal claim for recovery.

What are the common tools of discovery?

After the basic pleadings—the complaint and answer—have been filed, each side enters the discovery process. The common tools of discovery are: interrogatories, depositions, requests for production of documents, requests for admissions and requests for examinations.

Interrogatories are written questions about a case submitted by one party to the other. Interrogatories must be answered under oath by the other party. Commonly asked interrogatories inquire about witnesses that are likely to be called by the other side, questions about persons familiar with the allegations and the existence of any documents that might prove or disprove part of a case. Other interrogatories may inquire about the financial status of a party and the names and addresses of all witnesses to key events in the lawsuit.

Depositions are live questionings of a party or potential witness under oath, usually in one of the attorney's offices. The attorney asks questions and the party or prospective witnesses answer questions. If a plaintiff or defendant is deposed, he or she will have his or her attorney present to object to certain questions. Deposition testimony is important for many reasons. First of all, most of it (unless there is an objection) is admissible at trial. Attorneys often try to show a disconnect between a party's deposition testimony and his or her trial testimony. If a person testifies differently at trial than he or she did at her deposition, then the opposing attorney will show that difference to the jury and try to weaken that person's credibility.

Requests for production of documents are another key discovery tool. Parties can use this tool to attempt to gain access to the premises of the other party in order to inspect, take photographs and copy key materials. Other times this request forces the other side to turn over key reports or documents.

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