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How to Respond to a Civil Complaint in Pennsylvania

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Most lawsuits begin when someone prepares and files with the court a legal document called a complaint. The next step is to have a copy served upon the person or entity sued, which may be by the county sheriff or by a private civil process server. If you've been served with a civil complaint in Pennsylvania, you have a limited time to respond to it, and choices to make about how to respond.

Tip

Respond to a civil complaint in Pennsylvania by filing an answer, with or without new matter, or attack the complaint by filing preliminary objections or a demurrer.

What is a Civil Complaint in PA?

If someone wants to sue you in Pennsylvania, he gets the ball rolling by filing a civil complaint. This can be a court form that he fills in with the facts, or it can be a written document that sets out what his claim is against you. If the complaint is based upon a writing (such as in a breach of contract action), the writing must be attached to the complaint.

After the complaint is filed, the filer, called the plaintiff, has to get a third party to personally hand it to you. This is called personal service, and it is required under Pennsylvania's rules of civil procedure. The person who does this signs a declaration of service stating exactly when and where the document was served and files it with the court. The complaint may be served by a civil process server or by the county sheriff, depending upon your county's local rules. Once you receive the complaint, you have 20 days to to file a response.

If you do not file a response to the complaint within that 20-day period, the person suing you must send you a letter advising you that in 10 days, she will be requesting a default judgment from the court. Once the 10 days from the date of the letter have passed, she can ask the court for a default judgment. The court may grant a default judgment if there is proof that you were served with the document but failed to file any response and proof that you received the 10-day letter.

Possible Responses to Civil Complaint

Assuming that you want to avoid having a default judgment entered against you, you need to file a response to the civil complaint. You have two choices: either answer the complaint or else attack it.

Many people respond to a complaint by filing an answer. An answer must be in writing and it must admit or deny the charges made in the complaint. You set out the answer in paragraphs numbered to correspond with the complaint, stating the facts and law you rely on in admitting or denying each one. You can also include any new matter you want to plead (in most other states, these are called "affirmative defenses"). These are basically objections to the complaint that you must plead, including defenses such as a violation of the statute of limitations.

Your other choice when responding to a complaint in Pennsylvania is to attack the complaint with preliminary objections. You can make these on any of these grounds:

  • Lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter of the action or the person of the defendant 
  • Improper venue or improper form or service of a writ of summons or a complaint
  • Failure of a pleading to conform to law or rule of court or inclusion of scandalous matter
  • Insufficient specificity in a pleading
  • Legal insufficiency of a pleading
  • Lack of capacity to sue, nonjoinder of a necessary party or misjoinder of a cause of action
  • A pending prior action or agreement for alternative dispute resolution
  • Failure to exercise or exhaust a statutory remedy
  • Full, complete and adequate non-statutory remedy at law

You must prepare your answer or preliminary objections and file them with the court. You also have to serve them on the other party. If the other party has an attorney, you can give your response to the attorney instead.

If you have filed an answer, both parties can begin exchanging evidence in discovery. If you filed preliminary objections, the court must rule on these first, and may give the other side an opportunity to file an amended complaint to remedy the issues. If you file preliminary objections and the other side fails to respond to them within 20 days, the court may rule in your favor and dismiss the complaint as long as the other party was served with a copy. Check the court rules for your county to learn how preliminary objections are resolved in your court.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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