Leonardo Angiulo: What to do When Facing a Civil Complaint
Monday, September 03, 2012
The rules of engagement for civil lawyers are contained within the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure available here.
Within these rules is the requirement that a responsive pleading, also known as an answer, must be filed within twenty days of a defendant being served with a complaint. Knowing what to put in the answer, however, is a separate issue. Getting an Attorney to represent you as soon as you are served can help answer some short term questions that have long term consequences
Just like a complaint is meant to give a defendant fair notice of the allegations, an answer is meant to provide the plaintiff with notice of the defenses in fact and law. A complaint includes factual allegations that in numbered paragraphs identifying who is being sued and why. Within the answer a defendant responds to each numbered paragraph and puts their position down on paper. In addition, the defendant is required to include any affirmative defenses to the complaint in that answer. An affirmative defense is one which limits culpability but requires an additional showing of fact by the party claiming that defense. By including a defense in the answer it raises the issue for consideration at trial and during the pretrial discovery process.
To complicate things, there are some defenses raised by motions filed prior to answering the complaint. These defenses are contained within Mass. R. Civ. P. 12(b) available here and a good portion of the first year of law school is dedicated to these defenses. A number of the Mass. R. Civ. P. 12(b) issues are particular to practice in the courts of the Commonwealth. For example, Rule 12(b)(10) discusses the dismissal of cases that claim too much or too little in damages. If a case deals with damages greater than or equal to $25,000.00 then the matter belongs in Superior Court according to Massachusetts General Laws c. 212, section 3 available here.
If, however, the case deals with a monetary value below that it should be filed in District Court consistent with Massachusetts General Laws c. 218, section 19 found here. In summary, whether to file such a motion is highly fact specific and requires consultation with qualified legal counsel.
Properly answering a complaint is not so different from building a house. In construction, the walls need to be on center and level or the whole structure will fail. When defending a lawsuit you have to know how to frame the legal issues from the beginning. By responding to the facts appropriately and properly raising the correct issues of law as affirmative defenses provides the support you need to win your case. Having counsel involved before an answer is due is the way to make sure a case starts well and ends in the best way possible.
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