How to Respond to a Summons in California

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A summons and a complaint are two of the basic documents used to start a lawsuit in California. The complaint sets out the issues raised in the suit (what the other person is "complaining" about) while the summons calls (summons) the defendant to court to respond to the allegations.

There are several appropriate ways for the defendant to respond to a summons and complaint in California. But each is only appropriate in certain circumstances. Anyone involved in litigation needs to understand how court procedures work in a California lawsuit before jumping to respond to the opening papers.

Going to Court in California

A lawsuit in California can take many forms. It can be one person suing another, one party suing many people, someone suing a government entity or a class action, whereby a group of similarly situated people sue individuals or business entities

The basics are the same, however, in California. There is at least one party suing, and he is termed the plaintiff. He prepares a complainta written document setting out the facts of the case including who is suing (termed the defendant) and his damagesand a summons (a fill-in form mandated by the court). He files these with the appropriate court, then has someone "serve" them on each defendant. Usually this means that a copy is physically handed to each defendant.

Responding to the Summons and Complaint

When a person is handed a copy of the summons and complaint, she becomes a defendant in the case. The complaint contains the plaintiff's version of the facts of the case and the injuries and/or damages suffered. The summons, usually a much shorter document, notifies the defendant of how long she has to respond to the complaint and also the court that is involved.

At this point, the defendant starts considering how she will respond to the summons and complaint. Letters or phone calls to the court are NOT valid options. The defendant needs to respond in writing and she has to do it by the date stated in the summons. While this is typically 30 days, it can be only a few days for some types of complaints like domestic violence or eviction for cause.

If the defendant does not respond to the summons and complaint, the plaintiff can ask the judge for a default judgment against her. The entry of a default judgment means that the court hears the plaintiff's case without any input from the defendant, usually resulting in a victory for the plaintiff.

Considerations When Responding to a Summons

The most common way to respond to a complaint in California is to file an answer or general denial, but in certain circumstances, it is better to file a demurrer or a motion asking the court to take some action. Which to file?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to which option is the better option and it is almost always better, at this point, to seek legal counsel. That's because, in order to determine the appropriate response, the defendant must figure out a variety of fairly complex legal issues, like:

  • Whether the complaint states a cause of action.
  • Whether the complaint was filed in a proper court.
  • Whether the summons and complaint were served according to court rules.
  • Whether he should make claims against the plaintiff in the same suit.

Options for a Response: an Answer

In California, a defendant usually responds to a summons and complaint served on him by filing an answer. This is a legal document in which he can admit or deny each claim made by the plaintiff in the complaint. An answer must be prepared carefully since any allegations that the defendants fails to deny are assumed to be true for the purposes of this case.

The defendant must also raise any defenses to the allegations and any essential facts for that defense in the answer as well. Failure to do so bars him from raising them in the litigation. In addition, he can also include any “new matters” that constitute a defense.

In California, the defendant can use fill-in-the-blank answer forms for particular types of complaints, like contract actions. Instructions on filling in a form are found on the back of the form.

Options for a Response: General Denial

In certain cases, the defendant has the option of using a general denial as her response to a summons and complaint. This is a one-sentence response saying that she denies each and every allegation in the complaint. The California Judicial Council provides a form that must be used for this response.

A general denial can only be used in certain situations. These include:

  • When the complaint seeks $1,000 in damages or less.
  • When the complaint is not verified by the plaintiff (that is, when the complaint does not include a statement by the plaintiff swearing under penalty of perjury that everything set out in the complaint is true and correct). 
  • When the complaint is verified but the amount in controversy is $25,000 or less and not more than $1,000 of the damages represent amounts assigned to a third party for collection.

Options for a Response: Demurrer

Sometimes a plaintiff just gets it wrong, making allegations that, even if completely true, do not present a valid claim against the defendant. If this is one of those times, the defendant can file a demurrer to let the court know that the allegations in the complaint don't set out a legally sufficient reason for him to be sued.

A demurrer doesn't say anything about whether the allegations in the complaint are true or false. Rather, the defendant simply sets out the ways in which the complaint is legally insufficient. Typical claims in a demurrer can include:

  • The complaint fails to state a cause of action.
  • The complaint is uncertain.
  • The complaint 's allegations are unclear.
  • There is another lawsuit currently pending between the parties for the same cause of action.
  • The plaintiff does not have the legal capacity to sue.

The court can overrule the demurrer and order the defendant to file an answer. It can sustain the demurrer, that is, agree with the points raised and allow the plaintiff to amend the complaint, or it can sustain the demurrer without leaves the amend the complaint. In the latter situation, the case is dismissed.

Options to Respond: Motions

A motion is a request one of the parties makes to the court, seeking a particular action. A defendant can respond to a summons and complaint filed on her by making any of a number of different motions to the court within the time limit to respond to the summons.

Each motion is only appropriate in specific situations. For example, a defendant can file a Motion to Quash Service if the plaintiff did not get the papers presented to her in one of the ways the court requires. This might be because the defendant's name was not on the summons, the summons was not served at all or because there was some other defect in the service.

A defendant can file a Motion to Strike, asking the court to eliminate some of the language in the complaint that is irrelevant, improper or not in compliance with the law. Like with a demurrer, a court granting this motion can give the plaintiff leave to amend the complaint.

The third most common type of motion California defendants use in response to a summons is a Motion for Change of Venue. This type of motion is used to ask the court to move the case to a different court.

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