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Legal How-To: Responding to a Lawsuit

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Knowing how to respond to a lawsuit can be incredibly valuable in warding off future legal issues. Failing to file a proper response can have serious consequences for your case.

So whether it's knowing when you're actually being sued or knowing when your response is due, the ability to respond properly to a lawsuit is key.

Here are the basics for how to respond to a lawsuit:

1. Identify Exactly What You've Been Sent.

Not all legal notices mean that you are being sued. You may expect to receive:

  • A cease-and-desist letter. This is a letter cooked up by an attorney asking you to stop or cease certain conduct or else a lawsuit will follow. Letters like these promise litigation if you don't comply with their terms, but there is nothing legally requiring you to respond in any particular fashion.
  • An Internet takedown notice. If you've hosted copyrighted material that the rights holder objects to, you may receive a DMCA takedown notice. This is also not a lawsuit, but you should take proper steps to respond.
  • A complaint. A complaint is the first step in most civil lawsuits, and you may receive a copy along with a summons either by mail or in person. It should appear as a court document, with the word "complaint" as well as your name listed as "defendant."

2. Make Sure You Were Properly Served.

You will need to be properly "served" before the clock starts running on your lawsuit. This typically means receiving a copy of the complaint via certified mail, in person, or delivered to someone at your physical address.

Depending on your state and the type of case you're involved in, there may be very particular rules about how you're supposed to be served with a lawsuit. If the person trying to sue you failed to follow those rules, he or she may have to start all over.

3. File Your Response by the Deadline.

Once you know what your opponent is suing you for via the complaint, you can choose how to respond. You may wish to file a motion to dismiss the case without factually responding to any of the allegations. Some of these motions cannot be filed once you file an answer, a factual response to the allegations in the complaint.

In federal court, an answer is typically filed within 21 days of being served with the complaint. California, however, gives defendants 30 days from the service of the complaint. The deadline may depend on which state court it has been filed in (e.g., answers in Texas justice of the peace court are due within 10 days of personal service).

Need More Help?

In most jurisdictions across the country, your local court will have a "self-help center" where court staffers and attorneys can guide you through the process of responding to a lawsuit. You may also be able to find a free legal clinic in your area that can offer assistance. FindLaw has compiled lists of free legal aid services for more than 100 metro areas nationwide; just head to our State Laws section to find your state, then your metro area, and click on "Free Legal Aid."

Otherwise, a local attorney experienced with your particular legal issue can look over the lawsuit you've received and help you figure out the best way to respond.

To learn more about what to expect during the litigation process, check out FindLaw's lawsuit timeline.

Editor's Note, July 5, 2016: This post was first published in June 2014. It has since been updated.

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