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The early phases of a civil action are characterized by many different kinds of motions and a complex process of mutual fact-finding between the parties that is known as discovery. A lawsuit will start with the pleadingsThe initial documents filed by parties in a lawsuit. (complaint and answer in every case, and in some cases a counterclaim by the defendant against the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s reply to the defendant’s counterclaim). After the pleadings, the parties may make various motionsWritten requests made to a presiding judge. These include motions to dismiss, motions for summary judgment, motions to direct an opposing party to divulge more in discovery, motions for a directed verdict, motions for judgment n.o.v., and many others., which are requests to the judge. Motions in the early stages of a lawsuit usually aim to dismiss the lawsuit, to have it moved to another venue, or to compel the other party to act in certain ways during the discovery process.
The first papers filed in a lawsuit are called the pleadings. These include the plaintiff’s complaint and then (usually after thirty or more days) the answer or response from the defendant. The answer may be coupled with a counterclaim against the plaintiff. (In effect, the defendant becomes the plaintiff for the claims she has against the original plaintiff.) The plaintiff may reply to any counterclaim by the defendant.
State and federal rules of civil procedure require that the complaint must state the nature of the plaintiff’s claim, the jurisdiction of the court, and the nature of the relief that is being asked for (usually an award of money, but sometimes an injunction, or a declaration of legal rights). In an answer, the defendant will often deny all the allegations of the complaint or will admit to certain of its allegations and deny others.
A complaint and subsequent pleadings are usually quite general and give little detail. Cases can be decided on the pleadings alone in the following situations: (1) If the defendant fails to answer the complaint, the court can enter a default judgment, awarding the plaintiff what he seeks. (2) The defendant can move to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the plaintiff failed to “state a claim on which relief can be granted,” or on the basis that there is no subject matter jurisdiction for the court chosen by the plaintiff, or on the basis that there is no personal jurisdiction over the defendant. The defendant is saying, in effect, that even if all the plaintiff’s allegations are true, they do not amount to a legal claim that can be heard by the court. For example, a claim that the defendant induced a woman to stop dating the plaintiff (a so-called alienation of affections cause of action) is no longer actionable in US state courts, and any court will dismiss the complaint without any further proceedings. (This type of dismissal is occasionally still called a demurrer.)
A third kind of dismissal can take place on a motion for summary judgmentAs in a directed verdict, when a judge grants summary judgment, she has concluded that there are no matters of law or fact on which reasonable people would disagree. Summary judgment is a final order, and it is appealable.. If there is no triable question of fact or law, there is no reason to have a trial. For example, the plaintiff sues on a promissory note and, at deposition (an oral examination under oath), the defendant admits having made no payment on the note and offers no excuse that would be recognizable as a reason not to pay. There is no reason to have a trial, and the court should grant summary judgment.
If there is a factual dispute, the case will usually involve some degree of discovery, where each party tries to get as much information out of the other party as the rules allow. Until the 1940s, when discovery became part of civil procedure rules, a lawsuit was frequently a game in which each party hid as much information as possible and tried to surprise the other party in court.
Beginning with a change in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure adopted by the Supreme Court in 1938 and subsequently followed by many of the states, the parties are entitled to learn the facts of the case before trial. The basic idea is to help the parties determine what the evidence might be, who the potential witnesses are, and what specific issues are relevant. Discovery can proceed by several methods. A party may serve an interrogatory on his adversary—a written request for answers to specific questions. Or a party may depose the other party or a witness. A deposition is a live question-and-answer session at which the witness answers questions put to him by one of the parties’ lawyers. His answers are recorded verbatim and may be used at trial. Each party is also entitled to inspect books, documents, records, and other physical items in the possession of the other. This is a broad right, as it is not limited to just evidence that is admissible at trial. Discovery of physical evidence means that a plaintiff may inspect a company’s accounts, customer lists, assets, profit-and-loss statements, balance sheets, engineering and quality-control reports, sales reports, and virtually any other document.
The lawyers, not the court, run the discovery process. For example, one party simply makes a written demand, stating the time at which the deposition will take place or the type of documents it wishes to inspect and make copies of. A party unreasonably resisting discovery methods (whether depositions, written interrogatories, or requests for documents) can be challenged, however, and judges are often brought into the process to push reluctant parties to make more disclosure or to protect a party from irrelevant or unreasonable discovery requests. For example, the party receiving the discovery request can apply to the court for a protective order if it can show that the demand is for privileged material (e.g., a party’s lawyers’ records are not open for inspection) or that the demand was made to harass the opponent. In complex cases between companies, the discovery of documents can run into tens of millions of pages and can take years. Depositions can consume days or even weeks of an executive’s time.
Many cases never get to trial. They are disposed of by motions to dismiss or are settled after extensive discovery makes clear to the parties the strengths and weaknesses of the parties to the dispute.