How to File a Case or Respond to a Case
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Information You Need to File a Case
Filing a case requires four steps:
- Writing and filing the complaint;
- Paying the filing fee (or getting it waived);
- Notifying the party you are suing (this notification is usually called “service of process”); and
- Proving to the court that the party you are suing (the "defendant") has been served.
1. The first step—writing and filing the complaint—is the most complicated. This is because you will need to make the following decisions:
What type of relief you are asking the court to give?
Different people have different legal needs. For example, one person might want to have his or her child custody arrangements changed. A landlord might want to file suit against a tenant who owes rent. A property owner might want to ask the court to handle a contract dispute with a handyman. In each of these situations, the facts are different, so you would need to make sure that you are asking the court for relief that makes sense in your particular case. To do this, you will need to find out what relief the court can grant to you based on the counts you allege in your complaint. Different causes of action (i.e. breach of contract, negligence, fraud, etc.) entitle you to different types and amounts of relief. An attorney can be very helpful with these issues. If you do not have an attorney, your local court’s “self-help center” or law library, and articles on the People's Law Library website may help you.
What court you will ask to hear your case? (This depends on what you are asking for.)
The type of case you have will often determines which court will hear your case. Once you know what relief to ask for, you will have a better idea where you need to file your case. For example, in Maryland, if you are filing a lawsuit for less than $5,000, you may file in District Court. For non-domestic cases (cases that are not about family law), you will need to file the complaint in the county where the other party (the defendant) lives, works or carries out a business.
If your suit is asking for more than $5,000, or if you want a jury to decide your case (instead of the judge), then you may file the complaint in the Circuit Court for the county where the defendant lives, works or conducts business. In many cases, you can also file your complaint in the county where the dispute arose. The dispute often is called “the cause of action.” There are other rules about special types of cases, like protective orders in domestic violence situations, so be sure to find out if your type of case might be subject to special rules. Your local law library and articles on the People's Law Library website may be able to point you in the right direction.
Sometimes, your case will not be heard in a state court. For example, if you are involved in a bankruptcy, a Federal Bankruptcy Court will hear your case. If your case involves residents from other states or concerns a Federal law, then a Federal Court might hear your case. The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland might provide additional information, and again, your local law library and articles on the People's Law Library website may be able to point you in the right direction.
How can you write your complaint to make sure it includes all of the necessary points?
If your case is heard in District Court, it is likely that you will be able to use an official court form to file your complaint. Many forms are available on the Maryland Judiciary's website. If your District Court case is a “small claim” for less than $5,000, then you should review the Court’s “How to File a Small Claim” guide. Additional information about filing a small claim can be found on the Maryland Judiciary's small claims website.
If you are filing a complaint in Circuit Court, there are fewer “official forms” to use, but the points that your complaint must cover will be similar. Forms exist for most family law matters and may be found here or at your court's self-help center. Because there are fewer forms to use, you might want to look at sample complaints. Your local law library has some books, but you should remember that these samples do not fit every individual case. You will have to write your complaint on your own.
You MUST include all of the following in your complaint:
- You will need to tell the court why you are filing the suit. You must explain your story in enough detail to allow the other party and the judge to understand everything you are alleging in your complaint. Also, your statement should cover all of the legal requirements that are necessary to show the court why you deserve the relief you are asking for. These legal requirements sometimes are called “elements” of an action. For example, in a lawsuit concerning a home improvement contract, one element that you will need to state is that there was a contract in force. You can find out more about the “elements” of an action in books in your local law library. One such book is entitled “Pleading Causes of Action,” written by Paul Mark Sandler. While these elements must always exist, sometimes in an uncomplicated case, like a “small claim” action, the elements are easily explained in a complaint. In Circuit Court, you also may need to file a "Case Information Report," according to Maryland Rule 2-111. Form CC/DCM 002 is for civil, non-domestic cases, and Form CC/DCM 001 is for domestic cases. Read the Rule: Maryland Rule 2-111
- You also will need to tell the court whom you are suing. You must make sure you have the correct name and address of the person, people or company you are suing. It is important to follow all the rules in naming the defendant (the person or company you are suing). For example, in most cases, the person you are suing must be 18 years old or older. If you are suing a company, you will need to use the official name given by the State Department of Assessments and Taxation. If you are suing a partnership or sole proprietorship, you have to name the business owner as the defendant. If the person you are suing is in the armed services, the Service Members Civil Relief Act may apply.
- You will need to tell the Court who you are and give your contact information. If you are proceeding without an attorney, simply put your own name, address, and telephone number in any space designated for “plaintiff’s attorney.” After your name, you should place the underlined Latin words “pro se.” This literally means “for oneself” and tells the court that you are not an attorney and not represented by an attorney.
- Finally, you will need to tell the court what relief you are requesting. This would include how much money you are asking for. If the other part owes you interest, include the legal rate found in the Maryland Code, Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article, Section 11-106. Read the Law: Maryland Code, Courts and Judicial Proceedings, Section 11-106
You MAY NOT include certain personal identifying information in court filings.
Generally, you must keep certain unnecessary personal identifying information, including Social Security numbers, out of the court records unless there is a legal obligation to include such information.
The Rule sets forth exceptions, as well as alternatives when it is necessary to include personal identifier information. Read the Law: Maryland Rule 1-322.1
2. Next, you file your complaint and pay the filing fee. District Court fees are the same throughout the state, but Circuit Court fees can vary. In addition to the cost of filing the case, there is also a fee if you want the court to have the defendant served (either by mail or by constable/sheriff).
If you cannot afford to pay the fees up front, you can file a form explaining your need, and asking the court to let you pay later. You will attach your complaint to this request. If the court grants the request to let you delay payment, the complaint will be considered filed. If the court denies your request to let you delay payment, you will have ten days to pay the fees. If you pay in that time, your complaint will be considered filed. If you do not pay in that time, your complaint will be considered withdrawn. At the end of the case, if you still owe any court fees that you cannot pay, you can ask the court to finally waive those costs.
- At the beginning of the case: Request for Waiver of Prepaid Costs
- At the end of the case: Request for Final Waiver of Open Costs
- More information about Waiver of Filing Fees
3. The next step is to notify the defendant of the lawsuit. Once the court has accepted your complaint, a "Writ of Summons" will be issued and you must be sure the defendant is notified of the case through a legal procedure called “service of process.” The Writ of Summons has an expiration date, so pay close attention to the date by which you must have the defendant served. There are three ways to do this: 1) by certified mail; 2) by private process; or 3) through the Sheriff (or Constable). It is important to note that YOU CANNOT SERVE THE OTHER SIDE YOURSELF. Whichever method you choose, you will need to file proof with the court that the other side was served. A person can be served at home, at work, or anywhere else the person happens to be. Read the Rules: Maryland Rules 1-321, 2-123 (Circuit Court), 3-123 (District Court).
If you plan to notify the defendant by mail, the complaint must be sent through certified mail, restricted delivery, return receipt requested (also called “registered mail” or “return receipt requested”). YOU MAY NOT SEND THE MAILING YOURSELF. Anyone over the age of 18 who is not a party to the case may send the mailing for you. The mailing should include the copy of the Writ of Summons you received from the Court along with the complaint you filed. It is important that the person mailing the documents use certified mail, return receipt requested, because this is the only way to get a “receipt” that the mail was delivered to the defendant. If the defendant does not accept and sign for the certified mail, then service is not complete. Once the person mailing the form receives that return receipt, you may file that along with their Affidavit of Service with the Court to prove that the other party has been notified. Save copies of all documents sent by mail, as well as the postal receipts from certified letters and packages.
Private Process Server
A “private process server” is a person who hand delivers court documents (such as complaints, summonses, and subpoenas). If you choose to serve the defendant by private process, the Court will mail you a copy of the Writ of Summons. Any person, 18 years or older, who is not party to the lawsuit may serve the defendant. This individual will sign a document (called the “Affidavit of Service”) stating that the Complaint, Summons, and supporting documents were served on the defendant. The Affidavit of Service is the proof you need to send to the court showing that the defendant has been properly served. There are many companies in the business of serving defendants in civil claims. You can find such companies by looking in the business yellow pages or even by calling a local law firm and asking for a reference. You should always ask about the rates before you hire. You may also use a family member or friend to privately serve the defendant with the papers as long as they are not a party to the lawsuit.
Sheriff or Constable
One of the county sheriff’s responsibilities is serving defendants in civil cases. (Constables can serve papers in District Court cases.) Check the District Court fee schedule for sheriff or constable service costs. Contact the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office for information on fees for service of process in Circuit Court. The Court will deliver the Writ of Summons, Complaint Form and supporting documents to the sheriff for service on the defendant. After serving the papers, the sheriff returns a second copy of the Writ of Summons to the Court, certifying that the defendant has been served.
Read more about Service of Process.
4. Finally, you need to prove that you have actually served the defendant with a notice of your lawsuit. If you had someone send the Complaint and Summons by certified mail, you must give the court the receipt of delivery along with the Affidavit of Service. Mail the completed form back to the court along with a cover letter confirming that you are enclosing proof of service for filing in this case. If you used a private process server, that person must sign a document, called the “Affidavit of Service,” stating that the papers were served on the defendant. You must send the affidavit to the court. If you had the defendant served by a sheriff or constable you will receive notification that the defendant was served.
If the Court does not receive Proof of Service, you may not be able to present your case on the trial date. There are rules to follow in case service does not happen on time. Because these rules are specialized for each court and your situation, you should check with your local court’s “self-help center” or law library.
After a plaintiff files a complaint, the defendant has an opportunity to respond. The time period for responding is different in certain situations.
In District Court cases, a defendant must respond in the following ways in order to have his or her day in Court:
- File a Notice of Intention to Defend: The defendant must file this within 15 days of receiving the summons. The Notice is on the bottom half of the summons. Once the defendant has responded, the Court will send the plaintiff a copy of this notice.
- File a Counterclaim, Cross-claim, or a Third-Party Complaint. Generally, a counterclaim or cross-claim must be filed within 10 days of the deadline for filing the Notice of Intention to Defend. A third-party claim must be filed any time before 10 days before trial.
- A counterclaim is when the defendant sues the plaintiff.
- A cross-claim can occur only when there is more than one plaintiff or more than one defendant in the suit. A cross-claim is filed by one party against a co-party on the same side of the original case (i.e. defendant1 vs defendant 2).
- A third-party complaint occurs when a defendant files suit against yet another party because of the plaintiff’s original claim. In filing these types of claims, the defendant would follow the same procedures as the plaintiff originally when they filed their complaint.
A defendant may decide to file a motion, in addition to the responses above. For example, a defendant could do the following:
- File a Motion to Transfer the Case to Circuit Court for a Trial by Jury. In District Court, the judge decides the case. Any party can always choose to have a District Court case heard by a jury in Circuit Court. The plaintiff must do this by filing a demand for a jury trial along with the complaint. A defendant may do this within 10 days of the deadline for filing the Notice of Intention to Defend. Jury trials can become very complicated and expensive, however, so it would be useful to evaluate your situation again before proceeding in this way.
- File a Motion to Dismiss. Maryland Rule 3-326 has special provisions for the dismissal of a case that is not filed in the correct county. Read the Rule: Maryland Rule 3-326
- Claim that the plaintiff did not give proper notice. The defendant would do this through a pre-trial request or an argument at trial. If the request or argument is successful, the judge would postpone the trial, and the plaintiff would have to serve notice properly.
A defendant could also choose to ignore the summons. However, if the defendant fails to respond within 15 days of receiving the summons, he or she may lose the case automatically (called a default judgment). Read more about default judgments, and what to do if you receive one.
Finally, a defendant may try to settle the case out of court. If one party has an attorney, the other party must always contact their attorney and not the party. Otherwise, if both parties are self-representing their own cases, they may be able to work to settle the case themselves. Still, it is a good idea to use mediation services whenever possible to save time, effort, and money in getting a resolution to your case. Read more about mediation.
In Circuit Court, there are more rules to follow for answering a complaint. In most cases, if the defendant does not file an answer or counterclaim within 30 days of service of process, he or she may be unable to present a defense. Maryland Rule 2-321 does list a few exceptions to the 30-day rule, so it is important for defendants to review that Rule as soon as they are served with a complaint.Read the Rule: Maryland Rule 2-321
Answers in Circuit Court are more formal than in District Court. An answer must follow the format and captioning stated in Rule 1-301. In the answer, a defendant must admit or deny the facts the plaintiff gives in the complaint and contain any legal defenses listed in Maryland Rule 2-323. In Circuit Court, a defendant may also file certain procedural motions before filing an answer. Some of these motions, which are listed in Maryland Rule 2-322, must be made at this point in the case or they cannot be used. Finally, in some instances outlined in Maryland Rule 2-323(h), a defendant may need to file a Case Information Report. It is important to consult the Maryland Rules when answering a complaint filed in Circuit Court. Your local law library also may have additional books and sample forms on answering complaints. Read the Rules: Maryland Rule 1-301, 2-322, 2-323