A lawsuit can be closed either by dismissal or because a judgment has been entered. The party who initiated the lawsuit or the judge can dismiss it. A judgment is entered when the case has been resolved and a decision has been reached. Cases in which a judgment has been entered usually cannot simply be reopened. The court must set aside the judgment first, and this can be a long, involved legal process.
Dismissals are another matter and can often be reopened relatively easily, although it can vary by state law. A dismissal is made either “with prejudice” or “without prejudice.” This legal language is important because it indicates whether the closed lawsuit can be reopened at a later point in time.
A case that was dismissed without prejudice can simply be refiled.
How Was the Case Closed?
File a New Lawsuit
If a case was dismissed without prejudice, it can simply be refiled. The same procedures would apply for refiling as when the case was originally opened. In most states, this involves filing a petition or complaint, then delivering it to the court clerk and and filing it for a fee.
You would also have to make sure a copy of the paperwork is delivered to the other party in the lawsuit. This is called "service" and states have different rules for this, too, depending on the type of case. You might be able to simply mail it, or you might have to have a sheriff's deputy or private process server hand-deliver it.
A lawsuit that's been dismissed without prejudice can generally only be refiled once. If you want to attempt to reopen it a second time, you would typically have to provide a legally supportable reason to the court rather than simply following standard filing procedures.
Ask the Court to Address Prejudice
If the case was dismissed with prejudice, you'll have to file a motion with the court, asking for a judge's permission. You would typically do this under the same docket or case number as the original case. Cases dismissed with prejudice can only be reopened with a judge’s permission.
The court will schedule a motion hearing so you and the other party can present arguments for and against reopening the case. Different states have varying rules regarding motion requests and applicable deadlines for filing them. Visit the court clerk and inquire about motion requirements in your area. The opposing parties must be served with copies of the paperwork and the date and time of the hearing after the paperwork is filed and a date is set.
Present your arguments to the judge in court. Most courts have the power to reopen a case closed with prejudice if a mistake, fraud, or misconduct by the other party occurred during the lawsuit. New evidence found that was not previously discovered at the time of the dismissal might also be grounds to reopen a case. This, too, can vary by state.
Consider Legal Counsel
Reopening a case can be as simple as filing a new petition or complaint, or it can be very complicated and involve intricate legal procedures and arguments. This is particularly the case if a judgment was entered the first time around. Consider consulting with an attorney to maximize your chances of success, and to ensure that all the rules and laws in your state are properly followed.