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Lawsuits & Litigation

How to File or Respond to a Lawsuit Without an Attorney

— June 9, 2020

The below information is a general guide only and should not be considered legal advice! Specific requirements in your state will vary!

In a perfect world, everyone who needed to navigate the civil court system would be able to afford an attorney (or better yet, have one provided for free). Unfortunately, the sad reality is that the high cost of legal services makes hiring an attorney for any kind of civil case out of reach for the vast majority of people. In Portland, Oregon (where I practice law), the average hourly rate charged by attorneys is $324 per hour! 

It’s no surprise then, that research done by has found:

“In more than three-fourths of all civil trial cases in the United States, at least one litigant does not have a lawyer. . . And these are just the Americans who make it to court. Without access to legal advice, many are unaware of their legal rights and potential claims. Past estimates and more recent state-by-state studies suggest that about 80 percent of the civil legal needs of those living in poverty go unmet as well as 40 to 60 percent of the needs of middle-income Americans.”

So, what happens when you need to file a lawsuit to exercise your legal rights? What do you do if you need to respond to a lawsuit? This article will go over the basics of filing a complaint and answer in state civil courts. While it is no substitute for having a competent attorney represent you, I hope it will provide some useful information on the early stages of a civil lawsuit. The good news is that the mechanics of filing or responding to a lawsuit are not terribly difficult to understand. Once you get past the legal jargon, you will see that a lot of civil law is rooted in common sense.

The below information is a general guide only and should not be considered legal advice! Specific requirements in your state will vary!

Filing a Complaint:

When someone has been harmed by the actions of another, they can generally file a civil complaint in state court. For example, if you have been rear-ended in an automobile accident and suffered an injury, you will likely want to sue the person who hit you to recover damages sufficient enough to compensate you for that injury. Likewise, if you have a binding contract with someone and they fail to hold up their end of the bargain, you may need to file a lawsuit to recover your losses due to that breach of the contract.

The first step to beginning any lawsuit is to file a civil complaint. In the complaint, the plaintiff (the person bringing the lawsuit) will allege how they have been harmed by the defendant (the person who must answer the lawsuit). The plaintiff does not need to prove their case at this time, they just need to make allegations that, if true, would constitute a claim for relief.

Graphic of person using smartphone to access the scales of justice; image via CCO.
Graphic of person using smartphone to access the scales of justice; image via CCO.

However, simply alleging that you have been harmed is not quite enough. You must allege a type of harm that your state specifically recognizes as a recoverable cause of action (sometimes called a claim for relief). For example, if you trip on the sidewalk, you cannot necessarily sue the city for your damages. You will need to allege that the city (or someone else) was negligent in some manner. Perhaps the sidewalk was in a poor state of disrepair. In that case, you can likely allege that the city had a duty to keep the sidewalks in good condition, they failed to perform that duty, and as a direct result of that failure, you were injured. Each specific aspect of a cause of action is known as an element of a claim. If a plaintiff can prove each element of their claim, they should win their case (the elements used above are a general example only. The specific elements of a negligence claim in your state may vary).

The best way to discover the elements of a potential claim is to ask the librarian at your local law library. Although they won’t be able to give you legal advice, they should be able to tell you where to look to find the individual elements of any potential claim. Once you know the elements of each claim you wish to bring against the defendant, you then need to allege facts that, if proven at trial, will satisfy each element of your claim for relief. You will also need to inform the court (and the defendant) what specific relief you are requesting (such as economic damages or emotional distress damages for pain and suffering). This is known as the prayer for relief.

Once your complaint is written, it will need to be filed at your local courthouse and then properly served on the defendant with a summons. A summons is a separate document that gives the defendant official notice that he is being required to appear and answer the allegations made by the plaintiff. In most states, a person representing themselves will need to have the summons issued by the court clerk. Without a summons, the complaint will have no legal authority, even if it has been filed at the courthouse.

Rules regarding proper service of legal documents vary by state, but the most common way to serve a summons and complaint is to have them personally delivered by an adult who is a resident of the state where the complaint is filed. This is usually done by hiring a private process server or your local sheriff’s department to serve the documents. 

Once served, the defendant will then have a certain amount of time (often 30 days) to file their answer, which is the official response to the allegations made in the complaint.

Filing an Answer:

If you have been served with a summons and complaint, you must file an answer! If you ignore the summons, the court will enter a default judgment against you and you will be legally obligated to pay for all the damages awarded! This means that the plaintiff will most likely be able to seize your bank accounts, garnish your wages, and potentially foreclose on your home. Fortunately, filing an answer is not difficult. You simply need to refute the allegations made in the plaintiff’s complaint.

Admissions and Denials:

The main body of the answer should address each specific paragraph of the complaint and state whether the defendant ADMITS or DENIES the allegations in that paragraph (although some states allow a simple general denial of all the claims made). A typical response would look like this: “Defendant DENIES the allegations in paragraph 4 of the Complaint.” Generally, you should admit any minor fact that is easily proven and not in dispute (such as a jurisdictional allegation alleging you live in a certain county). However, if there is any doubt, it is always best to err on the side of caution and deny the allegation. Never rely on your memory when responding to a complaint. 

Affirmative Defenses:

After you have admitted or denied each paragraph of the complaint, you should allege any affirmative defenses you may have. An affirmative defense is a defense that does not depend on the veracity of the plaintiff’s allegations. In other words, even if everything the plaintiff alleges in the complaint is true, they are still not entitled to relief. The most common example of an affirmative defense is the statute of limitations, meaning the plaintiff had to bring a complaint within a certain amount of time (such as six years in some breach of contract cases). If the plaintiff filed their complaint outside of this window, you should allege as much as an affirmative defense. 


If the defendant has valid counterclaims, they should allege them after their affirmative defenses. A counterclaim is a civil claim arising from the same set of circumstances. In breach of contract cases, for example, it is common for the defendant to allege that it was the plaintiff who, in fact, breached the contract. In this case, the defendant would make a breach of contract claim in their answer, in much the same way they would if they were the plaintiff making the allegations in a complaint. The defendant must allege all the elements of any claim they bring against the plaintiff as a counterclaim and allege the amount of damages they incurred. The plaintiff will then have to answer the counterclaim in the same way a defendant originally answered the complaint (but note that the identifiers of plaintiff/defendant remain the same). 

Filing and Serving the Answer

Once you have drafted your answer, you will need to file it at the county courthouse and pay the applicable filing fee. Next, you will have to serve a copy of the answer on the plaintiff by mailing it to them or their attorney at the address included in the summons.

This has been a very brief overview of the initial stages of civil litigation. The details of any specific claim will vary, depending on the facts of the individual case and the rules of civil procedure in your jurisdiction. I hope it has shed some light on the basics of filing and responding to a civil lawsuit in the United States.

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