How to Respond to a Lawsuit Without an Attorney

How to Respond to a Lawsuit Without an Attorney

In a perfect world, everyone who needed to navigate the civil court system would be able to afford an attorney (or better yet, have one provided for free).  Unfortunately, the sad reality is that the high cost of legal services makes hiring an attorney for any kind of civil case out of reach for the vast majority of people.  In Portland, Oregon (where I practice law), the average hourly rate charged by attorneys is $324 per hour

In February, we went over the basics of how to file a civil lawsuit.  Now, we want to cover what to do if you are on the other side and need to answer a civil complaint.  This article will go over the basics of filing an answer in state civil courts.  While it is no substitute for having a competent attorney represent you, I hope it will provide some useful information on what to do when you are sued in state court.  The good news is that the mechanics of filing an answer to a lawsuit are not terribly difficult to understand.  Once you get past the legal jargon, you will see that a lot of civil law is rooted in common sense.  That said, before you read further, it might be a good idea to review our ‘Legal Glossary for Non-attorneys’ article.

The below information is a general guide only and should not be considered legal advice!  Specific requirements in your state will vary!

If you have been served with a summons and complaint, you must file an answer!  If you ignore the summons, the court will enter a default judgment against you and you will be legally obligated to pay for all the damages awarded!  This means that the plaintiff will most likely be able to seize your bank accounts, garnish your wages, and potentially foreclose on your home.  Fortunately, filing an answer is not difficult.  You simply need to refute the allegations made in the plaintiff’s complaint.  

    However, it is VERY important that your answer is laid out in the correct format.  If you fail to follow the proper formatting rules, you risk facing a motion to dismiss or strike your answer, wherein the plaintiff will allege that you have not followed proper court procedure.  For example, the State of Oregon requires that all pleadings filed in court must be on lined pleading paper (UTCR 2.010(4)), whereas the State of California (and many other states) do not have this requirement.

    Lawsuitforms.org has made sure that each form we offer for purchase has been properly formatted according to each individual state’s rules of civil procedure and their trial court rules.  Using our forms will greatly reduce the chances that your complaint or answer is attacked for a failure to follow proper court procedures.

    The format of a civil answer is generally the same in most states and contains the following sections:

    1. Admissions and Denials.
    2. Affirmative Defenses.
    3. Counterclaims.

    Admissions and Denials

    The main body of the answer should address each specific paragraph of the complaint and state whether the defendant ADMITS or DENIES the allegations in that paragraph (although some states allow a simple general denial of all the claims made).  A typical response would look like this: “Defendant DENIES the allegations in paragraph 4 of the Complaint.”  Generally, you should admit any minor fact that is easily proven and not in dispute (such as a jurisdictional allegation alleging you live in a certain county).  However, if there is any doubt, it is always best to err on the side of caution and deny the allegation.  Never rely on your memory when responding to a complaint.

    Affirmative Defenses

    After you have admitted or denied each paragraph of the complaint, you should allege any affirmative defenses you may have.  An affirmative defense is a defense that does not depend on the veracity of the plaintiff’s allegations.  In other words, even if everything the plaintiff alleges in the complaint is true, they are still not entitled to relief.  The most common example of an affirmative defense is the statute of limitations, meaning the plaintiff had to bring a complaint within a certain amount of time (such as six years in some breach of contract cases).  If the plaintiff filed their complaint outside of this window, you should allege as much as an affirmative defense.

    Before filing an answer, you should review the affirmative defenses in your state and see if any of them apply to your specific situation.  If they do, be sure to allege them in your answer.  Many times, if an affirmative defenses is not made in the answer, it is considered waived by the defendant. 

    Counterclaims

    If the defendant has valid counterclaims, they should allege them after their affirmative defenses.  A counterclaim is a civil claim arising from the same set of circumstances.  In breach of contract cases, for example, it is common for the defendant to allege that it was the plaintiff who, in fact, breached the contract.  In this case, the defendant would make a breach of contract claim in their answer, in much the same way they would if they were the plaintiff making the allegations in a complaint.  The defendant must allege all the elements of any claim they bring against the plaintiff as a counterclaim and allege the amount of damages they incurred.  The plaintiff will then have to answer the counterclaim in the same way a defendant originally answered the complaint (but note that the identifiers of plaintiff/defendant remain the same). 

    Filing and Serving the Answer

    Once you have drafted your answer, you will need to file it at the same courthouse where the complaint was filed and pay the applicable filing fee.  Next, you will have to serve a copy of the answer on the plaintiff by mailing it to them or their attorney at the address included in the summons.

    Conclusion

    This has been a very brief overview of how to answer a civil lawsuit.  The details of any specific claim will vary, depending on the facts of the individual case and the rules of civil procedure in your jurisdiction, but I hope this has shed some light on the process.

    Currently, lawsuitforms.org offers form packets and instructions for filing a complaint, answer, and request for production of documents in the following states: California, Florida, GeorgiaIllinoisNew YorkNorth CarolinaOhioOregonPennsylvania, and TexasMore states will be added in the future, so check back regularly if you need forms for another state.