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Introduction to
the Anatomy of a Lawsuit


This article tracks the anatomy of a typical federal court lawsuit in which the plaintiff is suing for employment discrimination. But the same basic principles apply whether the suit involves employment discrimination or not, and whether the case is in federal or state court.

Also, many employment discrimination laws require that a plaintiff "exhaust his or her administrative remedies" before a lawsuit can be filed. To learn more about this subject, read: Pursuing an Employment Discrimination Claim.

Beginning of a Lawsuit

A lawsuit begins when someone goes to the courthouse and files a complaint against someone else. The person suing is the plaintiff. The person or company being sued is the defendant. A complaint is a document which explains who the plaintiff is, who the defendant is and why the plaintiff is suing the defendant. The complaint must be filed within the applicable statute of limitations. A statute of limitations is a law (sometimes a state law and sometimes a federal law) which limits how long a plaintiff can wait before bringing suit.

When the plaintiff files a complaint, he or she also files a summons. The summons provides the address of the defendant and explains to the defendant that it (or he or she) has been sued and it has only so many days to respond. The complaint and the summons are served on the defendant -- typically by a sheriff's deputy (in a state court lawsuit), a federal marshal (in a federal court lawsuit) or via certified or registered mail.

Upon receipt of the complaint and summons, the defendant has only so many days to file a response (in federal court it is 21 days). The response usually filed is an answer. The answer responds to each allegation in the complaint by either admitting the allegation, denying the allegation or stating that the defendant does not have sufficient knowledge to either admit or deny the allegation. Also, the defendant will raise any defenses it has to the lawsuit in the answer. For example, if the defendant believes that the lawsuit was not filed within the statute of limitations, it will assert the statute of limitations as a defense.

However, instead of filing an answer, the defendant can file a motion to dismiss. This motion basically says that there is a clear-cut reason why this lawsuit should be dismissed right off the bat. For example, let's assume John Doe sued his employer for age discrimination alleging that he was fired at the age of 39 and replaced by someone who is 19. His employer might move to dismiss the lawsuit because someone who is 39 is not protected by the federal age discrimination laws (you must be at least 40).

Of course, there are countless other reasons a defendant might file a motion to dismiss.  If a motion to dismiss is filed, then the plaintiff must file a response. The court will then rule on the motion. If the motion is granted, then the lawsuit is over. If the motion is denied, then the lawsuit continues.

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