An American lawsuit often begins when a plaintiff files a complaint, which is a legal document that sets forth allegations against one or more defendants. When the plaintiff delivers the complaint to a defendant, the law requires the defendant to respond or run the risk of a default. If a defendant does not ask the court to dismiss the lawsuit before discovery, or if the defendant made that motion and failed, its response is a document called an “answer.”

Why should you continue to read this post about answers?

  • You’ve read an answer and want to understand it better

  • You’re curious why there is no pleading called a “question”

  • You’re a defense lawyer who hates that complaints get so much more attention than answers

Answers Principally Admit and Deny Allegations

Unlike a complaint, which plaintiffs often use to tell their story through a numbered list of allegations, an answer often does not recount the defendants’ version of events. Instead, for every allegation in the complaint, the answer may just say that the defendant admits the allegation, denies it, or is unable to admit or deny it.

I often see that defendants admit very basic statements: their name, where their office is, and sometimes complimentary statements, such as when the plaintiff alleges the defendant is a “global leader” in its field. Defendants have good reason to be reluctant to admit allegations, as they may be bound to them for the rest of the lawsuit.

Defendants often deny nearly everything else. This makes sense even for uncontroversial claims because defendants can argue that, while the thrust of a the allegation is true, it does not agree with the way that the plaintiff phrased it in its complaint. And, in any event, there is usually little practical consequence for denying an allegation in an answer and then later conceding that it is true.

For some allegations, defendants state that they are unable to admit or deny. This usually happens when an allegation concerns a third party or where the plaintiff is not alleging a fact but is making some other kind of statement, such as a legal conclusion.

Answers are usually relatively inexpensive documents to draft because they do not need to be well-crafted narratives that persuade people of the defendant’s innocence. Defendants have other opportunities in a lawsuit to explain their story, such as in motions to dismiss the case and at trial. Instead, the main purpose of the answer is just to let the plaintiff and the court know which allegations are disputed.

Answers Often Contain Affirmative Defenses

In addition to generally denying the plaintiff’s allegations, an answer sets forth the defendant’s affirmative defenses. Answers often list around a dozen legal doctrines that the defendant may rely upon later in the litigation to argue that, even if the plaintiff’s allegations were true, it should not prevail in the litigation. For example, a defendant may deny that it owes money to the plaintiff, and also invoke as an affirmative defense that actually the plaintiff owes it money and so any money the defendant owes is really offset by the plaintiff’s own debt.

Although an answer may assert affirmative defenses, it often serves as a waiver of any personal jurisdiction defense. A defendant may argue at the start of a lawsuit that it is not subject to litigation in the court that the plaintiff has chosen. But once the defendant files an answer in that court that does not specifically allege that the defendant is not subject to personal jurisdiction in the court, a court may decide that it is too late for the defendant to make that argument.

Once a defendant files an answer, the parties often proceed to exchanging evidence in discovery and the court often organizes a conference to plan a schedule for the litigation.

Answers May Also Provide Counterclaims

Defendants often see themselves as the truly aggrieved party and the plaintiff as the wrongdoer. In those situations, a defendant may assert its own claims against the plaintiff (called “counterclaims”) in the same document as its answer. It does so in a separate section at the end of the answer where, in a new set of numbered paragraphs, it makes its own allegations against the plaintiff and tells its story. Following its factual allegations, it identifies its legal claims and the legal relief it wants the court to grant.

Once the defendant files counterclaims, the plaintiff is required to file its own answer to the counterclaims. In that document, the plaintiff identifies which allegations it admits, which it denies, which it cannot admit or deny, and which upon which affirmative defenses it may rely.