Janet L. Eveland, Esq.
You get a thick envelope in the mail; maybe it has a sticker along the top that says, “Certified Mail”. Or maybe someone hands it to your receptionist. Or hands it to you in the parking lot as you go to your car. Or (especially in Virginia) maybe it’s taped to your front door.
You toss it in a pile with the rest of your mail and don’t look at it. Maybe it stays in the pile for weeks or ends up in the trash.
We all know we should open all of your mail as soon as we get it. This is especially true now when mail can be delayed for weeks (or longer) in getting to you. And anything that has the name of a court or a lawyer on it (inside or on the outside of the envelope) is something you need to pay attention to right away. That thick envelope could contain a lawsuit summons, a judgment, a subpoena, or a garnishment notice.
Unpleasant though these may sound, they are all a lot worse if you ignore them. In this blog series I’ll describe each, its consequences, and what can happen if you ignore it.
#1 – A Lawsuit
A lawsuit is a claim which one party, called the plaintiff, brings against another party, called the defendant, in a court of law. The plaintiff asks the court to grant some legal remedy against the defendant. The plaintiff might ask the court to order the defendant to pay money to the plaintiff, to stop doing certain things, and/or to appear before the court to explain something.
After the plaintiff files the lawsuit with the court then the plaintiff must notify the defendant. This notification must be done in a way that gives the court some assurance that the defendant knows the lawsuit has been brought and knows plaintiff’s claims against defendant. If the defendant is a corporation or limited liability company then the plaintiff must legally notify its resident agent (this information was recorded when the corporation or LLC was created and can normally be found on the corporation commission records of the relevant state.) Courts can get assurance that the defendant has been sufficiently notified when the plaintiff mails the lawsuit by certified mail, a sheriff or a process server hands the defendant the lawsuit, or other legal methods. The methods a plaintiff can use will vary from state to state and can depend on the nature of the lawsuit and the parties involved. Once the defendant has received the lawsuit in one of the legally acceptable ways, the defendant has been “served with process.”
After the defendant has been served with the lawsuit, then the defendant will have a certain period of time to respond to the court. This time period can be anything from a few hours (for example, in a case where the plaintiff is seeking some emergency remedy like stopping the scheduled demolition of a building), to a month or more. The time period varies depending on the type of remedy the plaintiff is seeking, the court where the lawsuit is filed, how the defendant was served with process, and other factors. The type of response can vary as well – the defendant may be required to file a written response with the Court or to appear at a certain time and place, for example.
If the defendant does not respond to the lawsuit in the time allowed, then the defendant will almost certainly lose. These time periods are very important and very strict – if the time period in which a response must be filed is 30 days then that means 30 days – not a month or a few weeks. Once the allowed time has expired it can be very difficult if not impossible to get the court to hear any defense the defendant may have had to plaintiff’s claims.
If the defendant does not respond in time, then the court may award the plaintiff the remedy requested. If the plaintiff was seeking money from the defendant then the plaintiff can get a money judgment against the defendant. A money judgment can be enforced through court action such as garnishment of bank accounts and seizure of property. Other kinds of relief can also be awarded. For example, a plaintiff may get a court order which prohibits a defendant from crossing the plaintiff’s land or which requires a defendant to deed certain property to plaintiff.
The next blog will talk about judgments, subpoenas, and garnishments and what each can mean for the defendant in the future.
What to Do
Open and read all of your mail as soon as you receive it. If you find anything from a court or a lawyer, contact a competent lawyer to advise you. You may be able to solve the legal problem before it becomes a lawsuit. Opening a letter from a lawyer regarding a dispute and deciding with your attorney on a course of action before it becomes a lawsuit can save you a lot of pain, time, and money.