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The 6 Steps of a Civil Lawsuit – Explained by Lipp Law

  • By: Katie Lipp
    Published: September 17, 2021

Article At A Glance:

“I was served with a lawsuit today.” Now what?

Lipp Law litigates civil and business matters throughout DC, MD, and VA.

In this article, Lipp Law outlines the 6 steps of a civil lawsuit, covering:

1. Pleading Stage
2. Scheduling Conference and Order
3. Discovery
4. Dispositive Motions
5. Pretrial Conference
6. Trial

If you are looking for a business or employment lawyer to file or defend against a lawsuit, contact Lipp Law today.

This article provides a general overview of the civil litigation process from beginning to end. All cases vary—depending on the parties involved, the facts underlying the case, and the remedies available—but a skilled litigator will develop a strategy with their client and navigate the litigation process summarized below to resolve a dispute most favorably and efficiently for the client. Before determining whether to initiate formal legal proceedings, or if seeking information about the steps for defending a lawsuit in which you have been named, this article serves as a useful reference, but should not be taken as legal advice.

If you are considering filing an employment- or business-related lawsuit or need a skilled defense lawyer in your corner, please contact Lipp Law today.

1. Pleading Stage

Complaint and Amended Complaint – A lawsuit is typically started when the Plaintiff files a complaint. The Plaintiff is the name of the party that brings the lawsuit. A complaint contains factual allegations detailing the Plaintiff’s claim, usually in the form of numbered paragraphs, and the type of relief that the Plaintiff seeks. As evidence is uncovered over the course of litigation and the theories of relief develop, it is common for Plaintiffs to amend their initial complaint.

The Complaint has to be served on the Defendant. The Defendant is the party being sued. Each state has different rules about serving a lawsuit, but generally a lawsuit is filed with the court, prepared for service through the issuance of a summons, and the lawsuit along with the summons is delivered to the Plaintiff. The summons contains instructions for the Defendant from the court about the lawsuit filing and what their rights are.

Defendant’s Response – Once served with the complaint, the Defendant has a limited amount of time to respond to the lawsuit (e.g., 21 days in federal court), unless an extension is granted by the Court, which is relatively common. In response to a complaint, Defendants usually file an Answer or another form of responsive pleading, such as a Motion to Dismiss. Although a Motion to Dismiss can be effective when there are clear grounds to end a lawsuit immediately, a Defendant should weigh the likelihood of succeeding on those pleadings with associated cost. Most state courts will be unlikely to grant a Motion to Dismiss, because there hasn’t been a chance yet to go through the discovery process, where documents, information and testimony are uncovered.

2. Scheduling Conference and Order

Once the Defendant files an Answer to the Complaint and any preliminary motions are resolved, the Court will set a date for a Scheduling Conference, typically 8-10 weeks after that responsive filing. The Parties are required to meet and confer several weeks before that date and will submit a joint status report detailing proposed litigation deadlines, including those for the completion of discovery, dispositive motions, and a pretrial conference.

Presuming that the Court is satisfied with the Parties’ joint report—which is almost always the case—the Scheduling Conference will often be cancelled, and the Court will enter a Scheduling Order adopting the dates and procedures proposed by the parties.

3. Discovery (Approximately 6-10 Months Long)

Upon the entry of the Scheduling Order, discovery in the case will open and the parties will be permitted to utilize a wide range of discovery tools to uncover information both from each other and third parties. Specifically, parties will almost always serve written requests for documents, serve written questions to be answered in narrative form under oath (i.e., interrogatories), and conduct oral depositions of key witnesses. The discovery period will generally last 6-10 months, or as otherwise determined by a deadline contained in the Scheduling Order, after which time all discovery must be completed absent leave of Court.

Likely Settlement Discussions – Prior to taking oral depositions, parties often engage in settlement discussions given the resource-intensive nature of those events for both parties. It is ordinary for parties to request a referral to mediation prior to depositions, if they believe there is a reasonable prospect of settlement.

4. Dispositive Motions (Usually 30-60 days After Discovery Ends)

After discovery ends (also called the close of discovery), it is common practice in federal litigation for the parties to file motions for summary judgment. Summary judgment motions seek a judgment by the Court on some or all the issues pending in the action without the need to try the case before a jury.

Although the party filing a summary judgment motion bears the burden to establish its arguments, these motions are more commonly granted in federal court than in local/state jurisdictions.

Settlement Point: It is common for the parties to discuss potential settlement: (i) before filing motions for summary judgment, given how costly and time-intensive the motions are, (ii) when the motions are drafted, and (iii) while waiting for the Court’s decision on the motions. Because these motions can conclusively resolve some or all issues in the case, parties tend to attempt resolution on their own terms instead of awaiting an uncertain, and potentially adverse, decision by the Court.

5. Pretrial Conference

Following the Court’s order on any summary judgment motions, a pretrial conference will be conducted. At this time, a trial date will usually be set approximately 30-60 days from the conference. To streamline the trial process, the Court may also set additional final pretrial deadlines, such as dates to file exhibit and witness lists and deadlines to resolve evidentiary objections.

Settlement Point: It is common for the Court to encourage settlement at pretrial conferences, and the Judge has the authority to order the parties to attend a settlement conference, whether in front of a mutually agreeable private mediator or a magistrate judge. Unless both parties adamantly oppose these efforts at the conference, the Court will typically seek to avoid the administrative burden that a trial will cause to its docket by ordering these resolution efforts.

6. Trial

If no settlement is reached, the case proceeds to trial. Depending on the number of witnesses and exhibits, and whether a party demanded a jury for the matter, a trial can last anywhere from a couple of hours (or less), to multiple weeks. At trial, the Plaintiff presents its evidence first, and then the Defendant provides evidence in support of its defense(s). Sometimes, the Defendant countersues the Plaintiff, and so in those cases, the Defendant defends against the Plaintiff’s claims and the Defendant presents its own case in chief for its counterclaim(s). Following the conclusion of the Parties’ respective cases, the jury confers regarding the presented evidence and enter a verdict on the various claims presented, as well as the amount of damages, as applicable. If it is a non-jury trial, also called a bench trial, the judge reviews the evidence and renders a decision. Sometimes the judge takes a matter into consideration to think about the outcome, and the parties will have to wait for the judge’s decision.

Settlement Point: It is common for the Parties to discuss resolution both in the weeks leading to trial, as well as while the trial is ongoing. Many cases have been settled only days or hours before a trial begins or before a jury returns with a verdict.

Although litigation is an orderly process that typically resolves with a settlement agreement, it is often protracted and costly. We often advise our clients that the only certainty in litigation is uncertainty and encourage settlement to avoid costly lawsuits. It is critical that clients and their legal team establish a strong relationship with open lines of communication throughout legal proceedings to ensure the best possible outcome.

If you need assistance with filing or defending against a civil lawsuit, please contact Lipp Law today.

Kathryn Megan Lipp

Katie dedicates her practice to employment separation guidance.
Based on her successful employment litigation practice...Read More