Staff Reporter (2021 – 2022)
Once you receive lawsuit papers, it is important to educate yourself about what steps come next. The papers will include a copy of the summons, or the cover letter, letting you know you are being sued and a copy of the petition (or complaint) filed with the court. The summons will contain the date the lawsuit was filed, which court it was filed with, the judge’s name, and the amount of time you have to respond to the complaint.
When you receive lawsuit papers, you are the defendant, also known as respondent, in the legal case. The person that filed the lawsuit against you is the plaintiff or petitioner. When one person sues another person, the lawsuit is labeled a civil lawsuit, as opposed to a criminal case, where the State prosecutes an individual. No one is automatically entitled to a lawyer in a civil lawsuit, but you can hire one if you wish. If you cannot afford a lawyer, there may be options available to you to get a lawyer through services such as Legal Aid of Northwest Texas and filing a statement of inability to pay with the court.
Once a lawsuit has been delivered to the recipient through a process called “service,” the clock starts ticking. Depending on the type of lawsuit, the court, and the jurisdiction—the state and county where it was filed—the amount of time you are given to respond will be outlined on the summons.
Decide if you want to hire a lawyer.
At this point, you may decide that you want to hire a lawyer. Many lawyers offer free consultations to give professional input regarding the type of lawsuit you are facing. The type of lawyer you should look for will depend on the claims against you. If you decide to meet with a lawyer, try to do so quickly and bring a copy of the papers with you. During your consultation, the lawyer will read over the papers to answer questions you might have, look for procedural and technical errors that might give you an advantage, and guide you through the legal process from start to finish.
If you decide not to work with a lawyer, responding to the lawsuit on time is still important. If you decide to represent yourself, you will be considered a pro se party. There are many resources for representing yourself, such as texaslawhelp.org and the court’s website. In addition, many courts have forms for responding to a lawsuit yourself (called an “answer”) on their websites. The court clerk where the lawsuit was filed can also assist you in getting a response filed with the court on time. However, please note that court clerks are unable to give you legal advice. Typically, courts will accept any written response, though you will still have to file it with the court clerk.
Review the paperwork carefully.
Be sure to read everything in the summons and complaint you receive. There may be a court date set for a hearing before your answer is due. If that happens, showing up to the court on the court date to attend the hearing will record what is called an “appearance” with the court. Even if you make an appearance at any initial hearings, you will still need to file an answer with the court.
Respond to the court to avoid a default judgment.
The most important thing to remember is that ignoring these papers will NOT make a lawsuit or a divorce go away. In fact, if you ignore a lawsuit, the courts will take the stance that you admit that everything in the papers is true, and rule in favor of the person who filed the lawsuit against you in what is called a “default judgment.” Receiving a "default judgment” means that the court will grant everything the person suing you asks for, possibly to include garnishing your paycheck or bank accounts!
Filing an answer with the court not only avoids a default judgment, but also entitles you to notice of any proceedings or hearings scheduled with the court. Without your answer on file, the court does not need to notify you about any subsequent proceedings.
It is important to know that courts move slowly. There is always the option to settle the argument with the other side independently, outside of court, through options like mediation, negotiation, and collaborative law settlements. Settling a lawsuit out of court often gives litigants the option for creative resolutions that a judge would not order in the courtroom. Additionally, while attorney’s billable hours may not necessarily be reduced through settlement due to the back-and-forth nature of negotiations, court costs for filing motions into the case will often be reduced.
Few things in life are scarier than seeing those four words: “You are being sued.” But just because you are being sued does not mean that allegations in the lawsuit are true. Think of the lawsuit as a wish list for the other side. Remember to read the paperwork carefully, to respond to the lawsuit, and to consider hiring a lawyer. Finally, know that remaining calm is one of the best things you can do for yourself.