Basic Pleadings and Motions in a Civil Lawsuit

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Pleadings are formal written documents that are filed with the court. Pleadings are public documents unless sealed by the court. The court's rules tell you what needs to be included in a pleading and how it should look. For example, each pleading has to contain the name of the court, the title of the suit, and the docket number, if one has been assigned.


A lawsuit begins when a plaintiff (the party suing) files a complaint against a defendant (the party being sued.) The complaint is a written statement of the plaintiff's claim or cause of action. In it, the plaintiff states his or her version of the facts-- what the defendant allegedly did--and asks for relief or damages.


The answer is the defendant's written response to the complaint. In the answer, the defendant admits or denies each of the facts contained in the plaintiff's complaint and gives any reasons the plaintiff should not win. The defendant also pleads any affirmative defense (anything that would prevent or bar the plaintiff's suit).

The statute of limitations, how long a person has to file a lawsuit, is an example of an affirmative defense. If the plaintiff's suit was not filed during the time period set by law, the defendant would plead the affirmative defense of the statute of limitations in his or her answer. If the defendant failed to plead the statute of limitations, that defense would be waived, meaning the defendant would not be able to raise the defense later in the suit.


If the defendant believes that he or she is the injured party, he or she files a counterclaim and asks for damages. For example, if the plaintiff sues you for damages resulting from an automobile accident, you would file a counterclaim against the plaintiff if you think the plaintiff was the one at fault in the accident.

Reply to a Counterclaim

If the defendant files a counterclaim, the plaintiff is required to file a reply to the counterclaim.

Amended Pleadings

The court can give either party permission to file an amended pleading.

Pre-Trial Motions

A motion is a written application asking the judge to make a ruling or order on a legal issue. Motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment are two common pre-trial motions. By filing a motion to dismiss, the defendant requests the court to dismiss the lawsuit because the plaintiff is not entitled to any legal relief. Either party can file a motion for summary judgment. The motion requests the court to decide the case on the merits prior to trial because there are no disputed facts.

Motions after Trial

The losing party can file a motion for a new trial, claiming there were legal errors in the trial that was held. The judge can grant or deny the motion in his or her discretion. The losing party can also file a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict after the jury returns a verdict.

This motion claims that the evidence does not support the jury's verdict and asks the judge to rule for the losing party despite the jury's verdict for the other party. The judge has the sole discretion to grant or deny a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What happens if a pleading isn't in the format required by the court rules?
  • What happens if I just ignore a complaint?
  • When do pleadings need to be "verified"?
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