Quick: How long do you have to answer a complaint?
20 or 30 days, right? Wrong!
It’s easy to misread the summons that comes with a complaint. It says (or should say) you have a number of days to respond, not to answer.
You don’t want to answer until a judge orders you to.
Why is that, you ask?
Because when you’ve been sued, you need time to get your stuff together. If you don’t take time to find the best defenses, you’ll get rolled like a log.
All you really need to do in the time allowed is to respond to the summons — to acknowledge what’s called personal jurisdiction — to show you understand the court has a right to decide the case.
Note well: To prevent the court from granting your plaintiff a default judgment, you will need to file a response.
But that’s very different from an answer. A response can be anything — a motion to quash or dismiss the complaint, a discovery request, a request for more time, a stipulation for trial.
Okay, just kidding on that stipulation. Don’t tell the judge you’re ready for trial until you’re ready for trial.
But you get the point. You’ll need to file something, just don’t file an answer.
When the time is right, the answer itself will be easy to prepare. You simply admit or deny the facts in the complaint.
But it can sometimes be difficult to separate the facts in the complaint from legal conclusions dressed up as facts. When a bank forecloses your home and claims they’re the holder of your note, is that a fact or a conclusion? You need time to sort those things out.
Your primary objective in preparing an answer is to find grounds for dismissing the case. What is missing in the complaint?
Take time to research the elements of the claim, and determine whether any elements are unsupported by facts in the complaint. If your plaintiff was sloppy and you catch it, you can get that complaint bounced right out of court.
Then you won’t have to answer at all.
Also, if you’re planning to assert affirmative defenses to the claim — and you should! — they must be filed with your answer.
Did the plaintiff fail to meet some precondition before filing the claim? Did they contribute in some way to the harm they experienced? Did they wait too long to file the claim?
Take time to find and prepare effective defenses.
The danger in rushing to answer a complaint is that you might be stuck with it. And if there’s anything wrong with your answer, that mistake can come back to bite you.
Sure, an answer can be amended later. But not always. If your plaintiff responds to your answer, you may need the court’s permission to amend it.
Of course your plaintiff can object to that request, so you could end up fighting over your very own answer. That’s the worst possible footing to start on.
Better to take the time to get your answer right.
So let the judge tell you when to answer. After you’ve filed a response, wait until the judge issues a court order listing a firm date for your answer.
That could take months. Use the time wisely.
Have you answered a complaint too soon? What damage did it cause in your case? Share in the comments below.