Judge Gerald A. Williams explains what to do if you’re served with a lawsuit
Judge Gerald A. Williams explains what to do if you’re served with a lawsuit.
If you get served with a lawsuit, suppress any initial panic and determine how to respond. Being sued is not a spectator’s sport. You can lose by default if you simply ignore the court documents and hope the case will go away. Civil lawsuits in justice courts, unless they are small claims cases or are eviction actions, are governed in large part by the Justice Court Rules of Civil Procedure (JCRCP).
File an Answer. If you are served with a summons and complaint in Arizona, you must file either an answer or a response within 20 calendar days. In your answer, you must either admit or deny the allegations in the lawsuit that has been filed against you. If you don’t know, you can also state that you lack sufficient information to admit or to deny the allegation.
It’s extremely important that you file an answer. JCRCP 116. If you fail to do so, then the plaintiff can seek a default judgment against you. JCRCP 140. In short, you will have lost your case without the other side needing to prove anything. Sample answer forms are available on the justice courts’ web page at justicecourts.maricopa.gov/Forms/cv_Answer.pdf.
Disclosure Statements. Arizona has a very strong public policy against trials by ambush. While surprise witnesses and previously hidden documents have made for some good courtroom drama, that type of drama only happens in movies and in television shows.
Within 40 days after the defendant has filed an answer, both sides are required to provide to the other side a list of their witnesses, a list of people with knowledge about the case, and a copy of all of their exhibits. JCRCP 121 Sample disclosure statement forms are available on the justice courts’ web page at justicecourts.maricopa.gov/Forms/8150-107-disclosure-statement.pdf.
One of the most common mistakes that people make is failing to disclose evidence to the other side. It does not matter if the evidence is really good or is really helpful to your case. If it was not disclosed to the other side, then the judge cannot consider it.
Pre-Trial Conference or Mediation. Depending on the judge, your case will likely be set for either a pre-trial conference or for a mediation. JCRCP 130 & 131. I don’t set a case for mediation unless I know that both sides want to go; so, shortly after an answer is filed, my court sets civil lawsuits for a pre-trial conference. At that point the case will likely either settle, be set for mediation, or be set for a trial.
Are There Any Traps?
There are two ways to lose your day in court even if you filed an answer. For example, if you’re sued for not paying a bill, and in your answer, you admit that you owe everything being requested and just want to work out a payment plan, then that could trigger a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. JCRCP 128(g).
We only have trials to resolve disputes of fact. If none of the facts are being disputed, then there’s nothing to have a trial about. If a judge grants a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, then a judgment will be entered against the defendant. So what do you do if you really do just want a payment plan? Contact the other side as early in the process as possible.
Another dispositive motion that can cut off your day in court is a Motion for Summary Judgment. JCRCP 129. If the plaintiff has filed a summary judgment motion, then they’re claiming that there are no genuine factual disputes and that they’re entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. The plaintiff is required to attach a statement of facts explaining what their evidence would be if the case were to go to trial.
Think of a Motion for Summary Judgment as saying, “Hey, judge. The facts are not in dispute. The law is clear. Let’s not waste anyone’s time. Just give me what I’m asking for now.” If you don’t respond, the chances that a judge will grant it are extremely high.
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