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Basic Pleadings and Motions in a Civil Lawsuit

By David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
A behind-the-scenes look at the different legal filings and in-court proceedings that make up a typical civil lawsuit.

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Whether we're talking about a divorce or a car accident case, most civil lawsuits adhere to the same timeline and structure, with various pleadings (document filings) and motions (requests made to a judge) occurring at somewhat predictable points along the way. So let's get familiar with some of the most common pleadings and motions in a civil case.

What are Pleadings?

Pleadings are formal written documents that are filed with the court as part of a civil lawsuit. Pleadings become part of the case file, and which means they are a public record unless ordered sealed by the court.

The court's procedural rules tell you what needs to be included in a pleading, how it should look, where it should be filed, whether there are any filing fees, and so on. Usually, no matter the jurisdiction, a pleading must contain the name of the court, the title of the lawsuit (known as the "caption") and the docket number, if one has been assigned.

Let's take a closer look at some of the most common pleadings that will be filed by the various parties in a civil lawsuit.

Complaint

A lawsuit begins when a plaintiff (the party suing) files a complaint against a defendant (the party being sued.) The complaint (sometimes called a "petition") is a written statement of the plaintiff's case, usually broken up into separate claims (called "causes of action"). The plaintiff states his or her version of the facts -- what the defendant allegedly did or failed to do -- and asks the court to order some kind of relief (money damages as compensation for any loss, for example).

In some kinds of civil cases, the complaint may be filed on a pre-printed form, so that the plaintiff checks boxes and adds a few details here and there.

For more information on what a complaint looks like (in the context of a personal injury lawsuit), see What is Included in a Personal Injury Complaint?

Answer

The answer is the defendant's written response to the plaintiff's complaint. In the answer, the defendant responds (usually very briefly) to the facts and allegations contained in the complaint. The defendant also pleads any affirmative defense (anything that would excuse the defendant's liability or bar the plaintiff's suit).

For example, if the plaintiff failed to comply with the lawsuit filing deadline (set by a law called a "statute of limitations") and tried to file the complaint after the deadline had already passed, the defendant would raise this point in his or her answer, and ask the court to dismiss the lawsuit.

Counterclaim

If the defendant asserts his or her own harm as part of the same incident or transaction that gave rise to the lawsuit, the defendant can file a counterclaim against the plaintiff. For example, if the plaintiff sues you for damages resulting from a car accident, but you believe the plaintiff actually caused the accident (and that the plaintiff is therefore responsible for your resulting injuries) you would file a counterclaim against the plaintiff.

Cross-claim

A cross-claim is made by one co-party against another, meaning that a party on one side of the lawsuit makes a claim against a party on the same side. So here, a plaintiff sues another plaintiff within the larger case, or one defendant sues another.

Amended Pleadings

The court can give either party permission to file an amended pleading, which simply changes or expands on information provided in the original version of the document (an amended complaint might contain allegations not included in the original, and an amended answer might include affirmative defense not previously raised, for example).

Pre-Trial Motions

A motion is a procedural tool in which one party asks the judge to make a ruling or order on a legal issue. Evidentiary motions set the rules for trial in terms of what can or cannot be considered by the jury. Motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment are two more common pre-trial motions. In a motion to dismiss, the defendant asks the court to throw out the lawsuit because the plaintiff is not entitled to any legal relief. Either party can file a motion for summary judgment, which asks 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 that harmed the losing party's position. The losing party can also file a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, arguing that the evidence cannot possibly support the jury's verdict. Motions like these are very rarely granted, because the moving party has a very difficult burden of proof to overcome.

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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