The First 9 Things To Do When You’ve Been Served

There’s a knock on the door. It’s a process server with a stack of papers for you. You have been served with a court summons and a complaint. You’re being sued.

There are lots of things to think about and do. Here are your first nine steps. Remember, as always, that I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. But it’s for sure what I do when I get sued:

1. Relax.

It’s not the end of the world. Nothing you do or decide to do now will come to any good if you panic. Do nothing at all for at least 24 hours. Simply acknowledge the fact that you’re being sued and deal with the emotional impact on you and your family.

2. Decide if you’re going to fight, default, or seek an immediate settlement.

Get a Fair Hearing in Court

No one expects a fair outcome when one side has a lawyer but the other side doesn’t. Level the playing field with Courtroom5.

Take your time with this, say 3–4 days. If the person suing you is right and there’s no defense — and if you can afford to give in — then just let it go. Call and humbly ask what they’ll accept in exchange for a voluntary dismissal of the case against you. Or, if bad blood prevents humility, do nothing and let the court enter a judgment against you.

3. Get ready for battle if you decide to fight, even if you’re fighting for a settlement.

Set up a case management solution that helps you prepare for the long haul and stay organized. Maintaining a file cabinet for all the paperwork can overwhelm you fast. That’s not something you want to waste time on. You’ll need to get up to speed quickly on legal research and writing, and you’ll need tools that help you deploy that knowledge.

4. Get more time.

I can’t stress the importance at this stage of filing a motion for extension of time. On the day you’re served, the plaintiff has the advantage. They know the strengths and weaknesses of their case, and may have anticipated your defenses. You haven’t had time to even think about it, much less to formulate a defense. The summons may give you a few weeks to respond, but unless you’re hiring a lawyer or have already grasped the relevant law and civil procedure, that’s not enough time. File your motion 10 days before your response is due, asking for an additional 30 days (check local rules or statutes for what’s allowable), and stating that you’ve been unable to find a lawyer.

5. Review the complaint line by line to understand the claim(s) against you.

What is the tort you’re alleged to have committed? Are you being accused of an intentional or unintentional (negligent) tort? What factual allegations are stated for each count? What are the alleged damages? Or is the complaint more equitable in nature? Find out why you’ve been sued and what the plaintiff wants.

6. Identify the elements of each claim in the complaint.

Start your legal research with Google Scholar, and be sure to select ‘Case Law’ for your state or jurisdiction on the main search page. Use keywords and phrases in the complaint to conduct your search.

7. Review the summons for any failures in service.

Did the process server hand the papers to your teenage daughter or neglect to check your active-duty military status? Your state may deem that ineffective service. Similarly, review the complaint for defective or missing exhibits. In many states (Illinois, for instance), when a claim is based on a written instrument, the instrument must be attached to the complaint. If you find a defect in either exhibits or service, consider filing a motion to quash the summons and/or complaint. If you’re right, your plaintiff be ordered to cure any defects within a certain period of time. Be careful to highlight a legitimate defect, or you may lose the opportunity to seek dismissal of the complaint if the judge thinks you’re slowing things down unreasonably.

8. Review the complaint for defective or missing elements.

Does the complaint contain a factual allegation to match each of the necessary elements of the claim(s)? Review your state’s case law on dismissals of similar claims, and check the complaint against those cases. Are there any defects in the factual allegations?

9. Move to dismiss the complaint.

Use your comparison of the facts in the complaint and the necessary elements of the claim(s) to argue that the plaintiff has not stated a proper claim. Don’t waste ink disputing any of the plaintiff’s facts. The judge must assume they’re true at this stage. Focus on the defects in the complaint and back up your arguments with case law. Be sure to work with the judge’s assistant and the opposing party to schedule a hearing on your motion. Secure a court reporter for the hearing, and file a notice of hearing. These steps will get you a fast start on the legal research and writing you need to do in litigation, and they may be all you need to do. You’ll be extremely lucky to get the case dismissed permanently, but it’s possible.

More likely, if you’ve found a real problem with the complaint, the judge will dismiss the case with “leave to amend,” which means the plaintiff can simply file a corrected complaint. You’ll have another shot at dismissing it and you should take it. Odds are the judge will deny your motion and order you to answer the complaint. But because the hearing will likely take place months after you were served, you’ll have gained the time needed to prepare a proper defense to the claim(s). When the judge orders you to answer, it won’t hurt to ask for even more time.

Do you have additional first steps for dealing with a civil complaint? Share in the comments below.

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Kurt Medema
February 11, 2023 10:56 am

This was helpful and I still need a attorney. My brother has served me 6 different lawsuits on the same issue. Now he is trying to get a default judgement on me going back to one he served in July. I have been served 3 more since that one

Mike Hill
Reply to  Kurt Medema
December 23, 2023 2:15 pm

I got sure with a complaint a summons a deposition and a subpoena to produce documents there is no case number but it signed by a judge do I still have to show up

February 15, 2023 4:59 pm

I have an idea what I might be served for, but is their any way to find out for what exactly?

July 10, 2023 1:52 pm

You did not include the person being served has any “RIGHTS”

Ella L Gray
September 29, 2023 4:50 am

Much more is needed on the topic failure to state a claim. Do you have any suggestions ?

Earley Story
November 21, 2023 4:11 am

I filed a FOIA request to my former employer for records as to why my retirement termination dates were never given to me for the specific dates or 3/3/1997 until 9/25/1997. I am the plaintiff and is forced to file pro se. The defendant, my former employer, – who also has a lot of County Attorneys on the payroll, hires another private law firm to defend against my claim. The 1st thing that the private firm do is to change the narrative of FOIA by informing my former employer not to respond to answering the request for the retirement termination dates and started a narrative that I received a fee of $ 24,000.00 in 2002 from the retirement board. During a hearing on 10/10/2023 I presented evidence before the board that my retirement termination date was changed on a computer from 1/21/1997 to 3/3/1997 on 6/3/1997. The document was changed by a former Shelby County Personnel Manager by the name of Jim Martin. This same Jim Martin was a voting member on the retirement board on 10/10/2023. The hearing was still held even after I had given the retirement board the document and a 1997 telephone recording with myself and Mr. Jim Martin. I have filed an appeal of the 10/10/2023 hearing. A Memphis private process company, Valencia Walker of the Hands On Concierge Services, have been paid to serve the Defendant- Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and his Chief Administrative Officer Harold Collins tomorrow, 11/21/2023. Again, the FOIA request that was filed on 2/23/2023 has never been responded to.

William McFadden
December 23, 2023 2:18 pm

What kind of case is it over $50,000 is it in circuit Court was there a notice of hearing filed with those

Debbie pierson
January 19, 2024 7:29 pm

I was served papers for a old credit card payments I have no money for a lawyer what can I do to get help

Allen Monson
April 19, 2024 12:13 am

Possibly, it depends greatly whether the lawsuit is frivolous and without merit. If it involves a lis pendens, and was filed solely to use the time gained from the action. And you need something done immediately, (relative term) then filing a motion to expunge and request the judge require plaintiff show validity with a preponderance of evidence. You would need to very sure he didn’t have anything.
One other option if you case involves a contract, such as a purchase agreement or any contract. Read up on what makes a contract void and or voidable, there is a difference. If the contract was void it lacked enforceability from the start, the judge will rule it void and treat everything as if it never existed.
Most important advise, even the best lawyers make more mistakes than they realize. Spend a could days, read everything line by line define all terms, legal definitions. You’d be surprised what you think you know about things and you dont. Find all the flaws and exploit them to the fullest. But as this poster said if you dont have a really strong case try to negotiate. Chances are you’ll have to go through mediation before trial anyway