Business Litigation: What do I do With a Summons And Complaint?

Our business litigation series seeks to help you understand the litigation process, especially as it applies in the Los Angeles Superior Court.  Today’s article is the first in the series:  What do I do with a summons and complaint?

The summons and complaint usually arrives by personal delivery by a process server, either at the office or sometimes at your front door early in the morning.  For a defendant in a lawsuit, this is the beginning of the litigation odyssey.  This article will lead you through the steps you should take when you or your business is served with the lawsuit.

What is a Summons?

A summons is the official document from the court that summons you to appear.  It will set forth basic information, such as what court you are being summoned to (e.g., Los Angeles Superior Court), the name of the party or parties suing you, a direction to file a written response, a warning that if no response is filed a default judgment will be entered and an admonition to consult an attorney.  California Code of Civil Procedure, section 412.20.  The summons will also be accompanied by a complaint.

What is a Complaint?

The complaint sets forth the claims against you.  Usually prepared by an attorney (but not always), it will set forth at least an outline of the allegations against you.  Some complaints are more thorough than others and will set forth an extensive factual story.  Other complaints set forth the bare bones in facts and the minimum required to explain the legal allegations.  Legal allegations include ’causes of action’ such as breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, quiet title, partition or numerous others.  Each cause of action must allege certain required elements but does not necessarily need to recite all of the facts supporting such allegations.  The complaint is intended to give you notice of the claims against you.

If you are a defendant served with a summons and complaint, here are the steps to follow when you are served:

1.  Write down what day you were served.  Your response to the lawsuit will be based on what day you were served.1  You can even just write it on the top of your complaint.  Your attorney will need to know when and how you were served in order to calculate a response date.  I always contact the opposing counsel before the due date in any event and confirm the due date with him or her, but it is helpful to know when the complaint was served.

2.  Hire an attorney.  Get an attorney involved as soon as possible.  Many defendants wait until the thirty days is almost up (or even past) before retaining an attorney.  Your case may require extensive analysis before a response can be properly formulated.  Give your attorney as much time as possible to do that by hiring an attorney immediately.  The next article in our series will be on how to hire an attorney.

3.  Collect all of your documents and emails.  Gather together everything relating to the lawsuit.  In a typical business litigation lawsuit, such as a breach of contract lawsuit, you will need to get together the contract, any invoices and payment records, all correspondence, photographs and anything relating to the other party.  You must also include all of the documents saved electronically.  If you have a document retention policy, make sure that nothing gets destroyed.  You will help your attorney immensely by organizing everything before handing it over.  Another common mistake is to only give your attorney an incomplete set of documents or to provide documents in dribbles.  Make sure that you compile everything and give it to your attorney.  Your attorney can only provide good advice if you have been completely open and thorough with the information you have.

4.  Do not talk about your lawsuit with anyone until you have consulted your attorney.  Your communications with your attorney are protected by the attorney-client privilege.  In other words they are confidential.  However, all of your emails, text messages and conversations with third parties, employees, vendors and friends about your dispute are discoverable and may come back to bite you.  Loose lips sink ships.

Once you have hired an experienced business litigation attorney, he or she will have more explicit instructions for you about your case.  Until then follow these four steps and your lawsuit will proceed more smoothly.

Laine T. Wagenseller is a business litigation attorney in Los Angeles.  He is the founder of Wagenseller Law Firm in downtown Los Angeles and he specializes in real estate and partnership litigation for corporations, partnerships and individuals.  For more information please contact Mr. Wagenseller at (213) 286-0371.