This post is part of our ongoing series translating the lawyer-gibberish of Pennsylvania lawsuits into something understandable. For the definitions of the terms in bold check out the post that launched this series. A list of the all of the posts in the series is at the tail end of this article.

So it’s time to go to the Court of Common Pleas. Whether you tried other steps first or elected to start here, today we walk through how the parties to a lawsuit lay the groundwork for their claims and defenses.

Complaint, Answer, and Reply

Both the Plaintiff and the Defendant in a lawsuit describe their claims and defenses, respectively, in documents called “pleadings.” This is just legalese for a type of court filing that describes in broad strokes what the parties’ positions will be. If all goes smoothly, you can expect this process:

  1. Filing the Complaint – The Plaintiff starts by filing a Complaint. The Complaint needs to outline the basic facts of the dispute and what the Plaintiff wants to get.
  2. Serving the Complaint -The Plaintiff serves the Complaint on the Defendant. In general, this must be done by having someone from the Sheriff’s Office hand deliver a copy of the Complaint.
  3. Checking for a Default – The Defendant must respond to the Complaint within 20 days of having a copy delivered to him or her. If he or she does not, the Plaintiff can send a warning called a “Notice of Default.” If the Defendant still does not respond, 10 days after sending the Notice of Default the Plaintiff can request a Default Judgment.
  4. Answering the Complaint – The Defendant responds to each of the numbered paragraphs in the Complaint in a document called an Answer. So paragraph 1 of the Answer responds to paragraph 1 of the Complaint, and so on.
  5. Raising New Issues – The Answer may also contain two types of statements beyond the responses to the Complaint. The first is called “New Matter,” which are new facts the Defendant thinks are important but that the Plaintiff left out. New Matter can also contain certain types of legal defenses. The second type is “Counterclaims,” which are legal claims back against the Plaintiff. Counterclaims are claims that could have been raised by the Defendant in a Complaint. But instead of having two lawsuits going at the same time, both sides’ claims are handled at once.
  6. Responding to the New Issues – If the Defendant’s Answer has New Matter or Counterclaims, the Plaintiff files his or her own response to those new statements. This responsive document is called a Reply to differentiate it from the Defendant’s

Preliminary Objections

What if there is a problem in the Complaint that the Defendant wants to resolve immediately? For example, what if the dispute should have been filed in a different courthouse. Instead of filing an Answer, the Defendant also has the option to file Preliminary Objections to the Complaint. Preliminary Objections are the Pennsylvania equivalent of what many places call a “Motion to Dismiss.” A preliminary objection asks the court to look at some procedural or legal defect in the Complaint.

After the Plaintiff and the Defendant have filed Briefs arguing about the Preliminary Objections, the court will make a decision. Except in the rare situation where the Court throws out the entire Complaint, you should expect after the court rules to resume the procedure set forth above.

What should I do?

If you are a Plaintiff thinking about filing a Complaint, I recommend you first speak with an attorney. While you can represent yourself, your odds of success are much better with a litigator on your side to guide you through the process.

Similarly, if you have just been served with a Complaint by the Sheriff’s Office, I recommend seeking legal assistance IMMEDIATELY. This is not one of those times that you can bury your head in the sand and hope it goes away. After a Default Judgment has been entered, there are few options to protect yourself.

Check out the rest of our series “Explaining PA Lawsuits Using Plain Language”:

  • Key Terms – the definitions you need to know
  • Let’s Get It Started – before we get to court
  • Pleading (Not the 5th) – the basics of stating the claims
  • Who’s On First? –collecting evidence
  • It’s Your Turn to Talk – what you need to know about depositions
  • As a Matter of Law… – motions that could end your case before trial
  • The Final Countdown – trial and post-trial procedures
Brandon Harter is litigator and technology guru at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from William & Mary Law School and advises clients on issues of  Civil Litigation & Dispute ResolutionMunicipal Law, and chairs the firm’s Tech Law Group.