Paralegals perform a variety of tasks to support lawyers; from performing legal research to organizing and maintaining files, serving as point-of-contact for clients looking for substantive answers, and calendaring court deadlines and appointments. Paralegals and other legal paraprofessionals require regular training to ensure they are following ethical guidelines, helping cases progress toward resolution, and adopting best practices. Our Paralegal Practice Tips cover several work-related areas including providing administrative support, microcomputing, customer service, legal support, and case management.
CIVIL LAWSUITS 101
Mass tort paralegals work in civil litigation – a term that applies to legal disputes where two or more parties are seeking monetary damages or a specific performance and does not include criminal accusations. Therefore, these paralegals need a clear understanding of what occurs in civil litigation, including what happens before, during, and after a lawsuit is filed. While each individual mass tort client may not file a lawsuit, there is a strong likelihood at some point in your career as a paralegal you will work directly on civil lawsuits.
What is a civil lawsuit?
A civil lawsuit is a court-based process where a person (the plaintiff) can hold another person (the defendant) liable for some type of harm or wrongdoing. A civil lawsuit seeks to compensate the plaintiff for the damages done through some type of relief, often money. It begins when the plaintiff files a complaint with the court.
Courts may have a wide variety of cases, but the most common civil lawsuits are:
- Tort claims
- Breach of contract claims
- Equitable claims
- Landlord-tenant claims
Step 1: What is a civil complaint and how do I write one?
A civil complaint is the document that starts the lawsuit to be filed. There are four components to be included in a civil complaint when you write one:
- The names and addresses of the plaintiff and defendant
- A statement of why the court has jurisdiction over the case
- Allegations or claims against the defendant
- Description of what type of relief is sought
Step 2: How do I file a complaint with the court?
To file a complaint with the court, there are three documents you need, a civil cover sheet, a civil category sheet, and a completed summons for each defendant.
- A civil cover sheet is a document filed with a court clerk at the beginning of a civil lawsuit.
- A civil category sheet is a document that helps select the category in which the case belongs in based on the numbered nature of the suit code listed on the civil cover sheet.
- A summons is a legal document that is given to the defendant to notify him or her that they are being sued by the plaintiff.
A summons must be completed for each defendant in the lawsuit. You must present each summon for every defendant to the clerk to which they will sign and seal each one. The plaintiff keeps the original summons.
It is also common to have to pay a filing fee at the time of filing the complaint and cover sheets. Sometimes the fee can get waived if the plaintiff cannot afford it. Once the complaint is filed, a court will issue a summons to the defendant, served personally, or by someone else.
Step 3: Judicial review of the complaint
Once the complaint is filed and the fees are paid for, the court will review the civil lawsuit complaint and all the documents within the lawsuit. It is in this step where the court will determine first whether they believe you deserve the relief you sought out to receive and second if you are being truthful and not suing with malicious intent. It is possible for cases to be dismissed if:
- The plaintiff made false allegations
- The complaint has malicious intent
- The plaintiff failed to claim which relief they should receive
- The defendant is exempt from the legal action taken against them by the plaintiff
Step 4: Service of process
Once the complaint has been filed and reviewed by the court, it can either be dismissed or accepted. If accepted, the case will be given to a judge within the jurisdiction it was filed under and assigned a civil action number.
A civil action number is assigned to every case to help keep track of it. Each court may have its own way of how it assigns a case number. However, it will most likely include the following:
- The number of the court the complaint was filed in
- The year (and sometimes month) the complaint was filed in
- The type of case it is (civil, criminal, etc.)
- A sequential number assigned when the case is filed with the court
Every court has its own unique identification code which may be a number, letter, or both a number and letter together.
The sequential number assigned to the case is often what number case it is that current year with the court. For example, the first case of the year filed in the court will have the sequential number of 00001.
The type of case the lawsuit is, such as civil or criminal, is shown as a short abbreviation of the type. For example, courts may use “CV” or “Civ.” for civil cases, “BR” for bankruptcy, and “CR” for criminal cases.
In addition, the summons you submitted in the complaint will be signed, sealed, and returned to you from the clerk’s office in this step to serve it to the defendant.
Timeline for initial response
Once the defendant receives the summons, typically they will have twenty calendar days to respond to the court. In some cases, it might be shorter, while in other cases it may be a little longer. The defendant has options for what they could do, but most will file a response with the court. Other options include:
- Negotiating a resolution
- File a motion to dismiss
- Sue the plaintiff
In some cases, the defendant may not do anything at all, which can result in the plaintiff asking the court to make a default judgement.
- “The Mass Tort Institute has adopted the American Bar Association’s definition of a paralegal or legal assistant as “…..a person qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” A paralegal is not an attorney and the roles of each must not be confused. Therefore, legal advice or representation in court cannot be provided, nor can assistance be given by a paralegal to help make a legal decision.
- The content contained on MTI’s Paralegal Practice Tips page and any other content on this website has been produced through The Mass Tort Institute as a service to its clients and is not intended to constitute legal advice from a professional attorney. MTI has used reasonable efforts in collecting, preparing, and providing quality information and material, but does not warrant or guarantee the accuracy, completeness, adequacy, or currency of the information contained on or linked to the website. Users of information from the website or links do so at their own risk.”