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By Erin E. Rome
December 21, 2015
Unfortunately, in today’s business world, it is unusual to make it through your career without some sort of brush with the legal system. Maybe a former employee of your business starts a competing company, in violation of an employment agreement, and you are forced to sue to enforce the agreement. Or perhaps one of the shareholders of your corporation acts in a way that harms the business, and you need to take action to protect the business and your investment. These situations are fairly common, but for many people who find themselves or their businesses involved in these situations, the legal system is unfamiliar and daunting. This is the first in a series of posts that will provide information on what you and your business can expect if you find yourself involved in a lawsuit – from the start of a lawsuit, through mediation and trial preparation, during trial, and after trial.
In a civil case, a lawsuit is started when the “plaintiff” (the party bringing the lawsuit) files a document called a “complaint” with the clerk of courts. In the complaint, the plaintiff makes factual and legal claims against the “defendant” (the party being sued), and describes how the defendant harmed the plaintiff or broke the law.
Along with the complaint, the plaintiff also files a document called a “summons,” which officially notifies the defendant of the plaintiff’s lawsuit. The summons contains basic information about the lawsuit, such as the name of the plaintiff, the name of the defendant, the case number assigned by the court, and the timeframe for responding to the complaint.
The summons and complaint must be “served” on the defendant. Most often, a defendant is served by a “process server,” who personally delivers the summons and complaint to the defendant.
Once a defendant is served with the summons and complaint, the clock starts running on the defendant’s deadline to file an “answer,” which is the defendant’s response to the complaint. In the answer, the defendant admits or denies the plaintiff’s allegations and sets out defenses to the plaintiff’s claims. The timeframe for the defendant’s answer is controlled by law, and is generally either 20 or 45 days from the date the defendant was served with the summons and complaint. If you are served with a summons and complaint, it is very important to keep track of the deadline to answer. If you do not respond to the plaintiff’s complaint, the court could find you in “default” and grant judgment in the plaintiff’s favor.
Some people choose to represent themselves in court cases to avoid the expense of hiring a lawyer; however, if your business is organized as a corporation or an LLC, you cannot represent the business in legal proceedings. Under Wisconsin law, corporations and LLCs must be represented by a licensed lawyer in legal proceedings.1 If your corporation or LLC is filing a lawsuit or has been sued, the business will need to engage an attorney to represent it in the lawsuit.
If you or your business are facing the prospect of having to file a lawsuit or have been sued, here are some important points to consider:
1. Get in touch with an attorney early on in the process so that you can start evaluating your options, including the following:
2. Begin compiling documents and information that could be important in the lawsuit:
3. Understand that once you’re involved in a lawsuit, you may be in for a long haul.
There’s a good chance that at some point in your career or in the life of your business, you’ll find yourself involved in a lawsuit. Understanding the litigation process and having a baseline of what to expect can help to ease the stress caused by the prospect of a lawsuit.
This general rule does not apply to legal proceedings in small claims court. See Wis. Stat. § 799.06(2).
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