What to Do When You Receive a Legal Complaint
A knock on the door. A parcel left with reception. An envelope lying on your front step. When you open it, you read the first words, “a lawsuit has been filed against you.” You or your company are being sued. What do you do? Here are the basic first steps you should take upon receiving a complaint.
Take Note of How and When You Received It
Complaints cannot simply be delivered. They must be “served.” In federal courts proper service is governed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4. Take note of how the complaint came into your hands. Was it mailed to your home? Was it handed to you by a process server? Was it dropped off at your job? In some cases, you may wish to challenge the method of delivery as insufficient to constitute “service.” So record details about how the delivery was made.
Also record when you received the complaint. In federal court, the rules give you 21 days from the date of “service” to respond to the complaint. State courts impose other time limits. Take note of when you or your company received the complaint, so you can determine how much time you have to respond.
Look at the Caption – Who is Being Sued and Where?
The first page of every complaint should list some critical details. This is called the “caption.” Every complaint will list: (1) the plaintiff(s) (i.e., the party pursuing the complaint), (2) the defendant(s) (i.e., the party being sued), and (3) the court in which the suit is to be heard.
Call Your Lawyer, or Get a Lawyer
A legal complaint is a serious matter and is not likely to go away on its own. Some people choose to represent themselves (what the courts call proceeding “pro se”), but it is not advisable. In some cases, it is also not permissible. For example, companies are forbidden from representing themselves pro se in federal court. They must always be represented by a licensed attorney.
Notify Your Insurance Carrier(s)
Here is a step many people forget. Locate your insurance policies and provide them to your attorney. Based on the allegations of the complaint, you might have coverage, which could result in an attorney being assigned to represent you, or your legal fees being picked up by the insurance carrier. In most cases, you are required to give your insurer prompt notice of any likely litigation, or else you may risk losing coverage.
Preserve Relevant Evidence
Now that you are aware of the suit, you have a duty to ensure that relevant evidence is not lost or destroyed. If the suit is just against you as a person, then take steps to ensure any relevant evidence (such as emails, voicemails, texts, call records, memos, notebooks, contracts, etc.) are not lost or destroyed. If your company is sued, you should issue a litigation hold notice to your employees to ensure that relevant evidence is preserved.
Receiving a legal complaint is daunting, but it is no cause for panic. By following these steps, you can start your case on the right footing.