Build your knowledge of legal English vocabulary related to US civil litigation.
This essay will briefly introduce you to civil litigation and the rules of civil procedure in the United States. Because there are both federal and state court systems in the United States, there are Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and each state has its own rules, too.
Law schools require their students to study the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in their first year of law school. Federal and state rules of civil procedure are fairly similar so learning the Federal Rules also helps students to understand state rules.
A case begins with the plaintiff’s complaint. The complaint is a document in which the plaintiff alleges that the defendant harmed her. For example, the complaint might allege that the defendant breached a contract or that the defendant carelessly caused a car accident.
Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs the “pleading requirements” for complaints in federal court. Pleading requirements means the details which must be included in the complaint.
Rule 8 requires a complaint to include three things:
(i) a short and plain statement of subject matter jurisdiction. In other words, why is the case in federal court? Does the plaintiff think the federal court has federal question jurisdiction or diversity jurisdiction?
(ii) a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the plaintiff is entitled to relief. Relief means a remedy for the plaintiff’s injury. The complaint must show that the defendant did something wrong and that the plaintiff deserves a remedy.
(iii) a demand for judgment. What does the plaintiff want the court to do? Does the plaintiff want the court to award her money or some other form of relief?
Looking at the second requirement above, how much detail is required in a short and plain statement of the claim? Not much. Rule 8 makes it relatively easy to start a civil litigation.
The plaintiff does not have to include proof or evidence in her complaint. Proof can wait until later stages of the litigation.
A plaintiff does not have to bring only one claim. The Federal Rules encourage a plaintiff to allege multiple claims in a single civil litigation. Rule 8 also allows the plaintiff to introduce alternative theories as to why she is entitled to relief. If one theory fails, she may still prevail with her alternative theories.
Rule 9 imposes slightly stricter requirements for any claims that are based on fraud. A fraud claim requires that the complaint allege the factual circumstances surrounding the fraud. To satisfy Rule 9, the complaint should allege who committed the fraud and when and where the fraud was committed. In addition, the complaint should specify how the fraud was communicated (e.g., did the defendant telephone, email or speak face-to-face with the plaintiff when he committed the fraud?)
After receiving plaintiff’s complaint, the defendant must determine how he will respond. His two main options are to (i) move to dismiss the complaint or (ii) answer the complaint.
a. Motion to Dismiss
To “move” is to ask the court to issue a ruling or a decision on a particular matter. A motion to dismiss is where a defendant asks the court to throw out the plaintiff’s case.
There are several grounds for a court to dismiss the plaintiff’s case.
For example, if the plaintiff does not adequately allege that the defendant did something wrong, then the court can dismiss the complaint.
Another common reason for a court to dismiss a case is if the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. If the case does not belong in federal court, then the court must dismiss the case and the plaintiff will have to go to state court.
Defendant will usually file an Answer if the court does not dismiss plaintiff's complaint. When a defendant answers a complaint, he admits or denies each of the allegations in the complaint. If the defendant denies an allegation, then the plaintiff will have to prove the allegation at trial.
In addition to answering the complaint, the defendant may also assert claims against the plaintiff. Allegations by the defendant against the plaintiff are called counterclaims. For example, if the plaintiff alleges that the defendant breached a contract, the defendant will often counterclaim that the plaintiff breached the contract.
Discovery is the pretrial process where parties acquire and disclose information concerning the case. Attorneys typically control the discovery process with little involvement by the judge, except where there is a dispute.
The Federal Rules promote broad discovery. Each party must disclose documents and other evidence to his adversary prior to trial. Parties must not destroy or conceal evidence.
Keep in mind that in a complaint, answer, and counterclaim, neither party is required to produce evidence. Until discovery begins, parties in a litigation might not know how much evidence supports their side and how much evidence supports their adversary’s position. Parties often expect that much of the evidence to support their claims will emerge during the discovery process.
Attorneys and litigants must comply with discovery rules or face serious sanctions. A court can punish both attorneys and parties who fail to preserve evidence or fail to respond to discovery requests.
Summary judgment is where a court rules in one party’s favor prior to trial. Parties often move for summary judgment after discovery ends because at that point the parties have shared and acquired all the evidence relevant to the case.
A judge will grant summary judgment if the evidence and the law favor one party so much that they must win and a jury could not find for the other party. If it is obvious that one party must win at trial there is no need to waste time and money trying the case. Instead, on a summary judgment motion, the judge can decide that one party should prevail without a jury or trial. If neither side wins on summary judgment, then the case should proceed to trial.
Many cases end with negotiations and an agreement between the parties. Rather than risk going to trial, parties often choose to pay money to their adversaries. Discovery encourages settlement by providing parties with a clear picture of the strengths and weaknesses of each side’s position.
Most trials are jury trials. Potential jurors are randomly selected from the general population. To determine whether a juror is suitable the attorneys and the court conduct voir dire. During voir dire,jurors must answer questions under oath to determine whether they can be impartial at trial.
After a jury is selected, the trial can begin. When the jury is selected, we say the jury has been empaneled. Attorneys make opening statements in which they explain to the jury what they will try to prove at trial. Following opening statements, the plaintiff’s attorney presents his case-in-chief. He will ask witnesses questions as they testify on the plaintiff’s behalf.
The attorney for the defendant is allowed to cross-examine the plaintiff's witnesses. Cross-examination is where an attorney tries to discredit the testimony of his adversary’s witnesses through questioning.
After plaintiff’s case-in-chief, the defendant’s attorney presents the defendant’s case. The defendant’s attorney solicits testimony from the defendant’s witnesses and then the plaintiff’s attorney will conduct his cross-examination.
After all the evidence is presented, defendant’s attorney and then the plaintiff’s attorney will make their closing statements. A closing statement is where an attorney summarizes the evidence that was presented at trial.
After closing statements the jury will deliberate, meaning the jury will discuss which party should prevail. After deliberating, the jury will issue a verdict. The verdict usually states which side wins and which side loses and what the losing party must pay to compensate the prevailing party.
Sometimes during the trial or even after the jury issues a verdict a party will move the court to issue judgment in its favor. The party will argue that the other side’s position is so weak, that the judge must decide the case against the other party.
When the case ends, the losing side is allowed to appeal. In an appeal, a party cannot simply argue that the jury reached the wrong decision. Instead, appeals focus on errors committed by the judge.
For example, before jurors deliberate, the judge explains the law. If the judge issued an incorrect explanation of the law to the jury, then the losing party can appeal based on that error.
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