Being “served with papers” can be quite a jarring experience, especially if a lawsuit against you was unexpected. It is normal to feel anger, betrayal, fear, and a host of other negative emotions upon reviewing the papers. You may be wondering why the opposing party took such an aggressive course of action, and why he or she put such nasty lies about you in a public document, without approaching you first to try to work things out. You also may be asking yourself how this development will affect your wallet, your family, and your job. Most likely, you are at a loss regarding what you should do next.
This article provides a roadmap for your next steps at this very preliminary stage of the lawsuit.
But first let’s start with the basics: what are the “papers” with which you were served? In Virginia, getting served with papers means that you were handed or mailed a Complaint and a Summons or a Petition and Notice. The Complaint or Petition is the document that initiates the lawsuit. It sets forth the opposing party’s claims against you, his or her basic allegations, and the relief requested from the court. A Summons is a document commanding you to respond to the Complaint in a relatively short time frame—usually in a matter of weeks. The Notice of Hearing provides the date of the initial court hearing for the case at which your presence is required.
So what should you do upon reading these papers? In no particular order, here are five action items for this very preliminary stage of the lawsuit:
- Be careful about what you write, say, and do. Do not fire off a text or an email to the opposing party telling him or her how you feel about this recent development! Everything you write may ultimately be read by the judge presiding over the matter (with the exception of communications protected by privilege). Likewise, think twice about your actions. Ask yourself (and, better yet, an experienced attorney) if the judge would condone the activity you are contemplating. If not, you are likely acting against your interests.
- Do not panic about the timeline. Feeling panic is natural upon seeing from the Summons that you have only a few weeks to respond to the Complaint or Petition. In Virginia, for example, you have 21 days to respond. Legally-imposed deadlines are part of the litigation process. While we don’t recommend delaying your response, the deadlines to submit your initial response to the Complaint or Petition can be extended with permission of the Court. Courts understand that it takes time for a newly-served defendant to process and understand the allegations in a Complaint or Petition and to respond. They generally grant additional time to diligent defendants if the request is made early in the process. Indeed, courts rarely find prejudice to the opposing party so long as a response is filed before the initial status conference. So take a breath.
- Find legal counsel that is a good fit. A lawyer can advise you on whether you were properly served with the papers under the laws of Virginia, whether you have grounds to dismiss the lawsuit against you, and whether you should file a counterclaim. A lawyer will help you navigate “the system” and ensure that your interests are protected throughout the litigation process. Carefully research the experienced Virginia family law attorneys in your area to identify an attorney who meets your particular needs (see the related blog article Picking the Right Litigation Team When Litigation is Necessary [link to article here]). While experienced and highly-regarded attorneys generally charge higher rates, their fees are generally a good investment. Even if you have to borrow money from a family member, take a cash advance on a credit card, or withdraw funds from a home equity line of credit to finance your litigation costs, ensuring that you will come out of the litigation well-positioned for your future and the future of your children will be worth it.
- Find a proper outlet for your emotions. It is important that you process your emotions appropriately because, again, in litigation, your words and actions will be scrutinized. It is also important for your mental health. Litigation is not a pleasant experience. Take care of yourself by rallying your support system, doing yoga, and/or seeing a therapist –whatever works for you.
- Do not lose hope for a negotiated settlement. Settlement and litigation efforts typically proceed in tandem. Cases have settled shortly after a Complaint or Petition has been served, on the eve of the trial, and at any point in between. Just because a lawsuit was filed does not mean that settlement discussions can’t proceed at the same time and result in a constructive settlement agreement. Indeed, lawsuits sometimes facilitate settlement because they force the parties to work within the confines of court-imposed deadlines and motivate the clients to avoid the high costs of litigation.
- Remember that there is light at the end of the tunnel. While litigation moves at a slow pace, it is a finite process. If the lawsuit is not dismissed, you will emerge from the other side with either a court order or a settlement agreement that will provide you with predictability and finality.