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Know How to Answer a Complaint

Q: How is a civil law suit started?
A:
 Civil law suits generally begin when someone files a complaint with the court. In the complaint, the person bringing suit (the plaintiff) states the facts and allegations against each defendant (a person or entity whom the plaintiff believes is responsible for causing the damage).   The complaint also asks the court for a remedy, such as money damages or an order controlling future actions of the defendant(s). 

Q: What happens if I don’t file an answer in response to a complaint?
A:
 If you do not respond, the court likely will believe the allegations in the complaint are true and you will probably lose the court case without ever having a hearing.  You must respond in writing to participate in the case.

Q: What should I do when I get a complaint?
A:
 The complaint will come with a summons from the court. The summons gives important information such as a deadline for your answer and necessary addresses for where and to whom to send a copy of your answer.  Read it carefully.  Most complaints filed in Ohio courts allow 28 days to respond, although exceptions include evictions, child custody cases with emergency issues and small claims cases.  

Q: When should I call an attorney?
A:
 If possible, consult an attorney immediately.  Some attorneys provide a free initial consultation to assess the merits of your case and determine the cost of representing you.  Ask if there is a consultation fee.  If you cannot afford an attorney, contact your local legal aid office by calling 1-866-LAW-OHIO (1-866-529-6446) to determine if they can assist you. If you cannot get an attorney’s help, you must prepare your own written answer.

Q: What must I include in my answer to the complaint?
A:
 You must include the name of the court and county, the name and address of the person who sued you (plaintiff), your name and address (defendant), and the case number and name of the judge.  Use the first page of the complaint as a guide to format this information.

Respond to each paragraph of the complaint in your answer politely and truthfully, admitting what you know to be true and denying any statement that you believe is false or that you do not know to be true.  You may briefly explain why you deny particular statements, but do not go into detail.  Your goal is to protect your right to present your case later.  At the end of your answer, ask the judge to dismiss the complaint against you, sign your name, and clearly print your name, address and phone number. 

Q: What else should I include in my answer?
A:
Include any “defenses” that would disqualify your case from being heard in the court where the complaint was filed. For example, the court where the complaint was filed may not have jurisdiction over the subject matter or the parties to the law suit, or may not be the proper court to hear the case. Perhaps the way you received the complaint was not handled properly, or the court cannot grant relief for plaintiff’s claim, or the plaintiff failed to include a necessary party.  You must include any defenses that might apply to your case when you respond to the complaint or you may not be able to present them later.

If you have your own legal claims against the person who filed the complaint against you, you may wish to include these in your answer.  Such claims are called “counterclaims.”  Ask an attorney to evaluate your case for any counterclaims (or for defenses). 

Q: What should I do when I’ve completed my answer?
A:
 At the bottom of your answer, after your name and contact information, include the name and address of the plaintiff’s attorney and the date that you mail the answer to that person.  Sign your name again after the mailing date. 
Make at least two copies of your answer and mail one copy to the plaintiff’s attorney listed on the complaint or summons. If no attorney is listed, mail it directly to the plaintiff. Mail it on the date you indicated in your answer document.  Take your original answer and an extra copy to the court address listed on the summons.  The court will timestamp your copy and give it back to you to keep like a receipt. If you are unable to take your answer to the court, the summons may suggest additional options for submitting your answer. Keep your personal copy in a safe place, along with the summons and complaint. 

Q: What happens after I file my answer?
A: 
After you file your answer, each side will develop its case.  The court may send you notices and the plaintiff or other parties may send requests for information.  Make sure the court always has your current address.  Carefully review any documents you receive from the court or other parties; they will likely require a response or an action from you.  The court may set a pre-trial hearing or conference, which allows the judge to meet the parties and discuss the trial schedule.  You must attend any hearing or conference that the court schedules. 

4/25/2011

This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by Melissa Skilliter, an attorney with Southeastern Ohio Legal Services in Columbus.

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

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