How to File a Civil Action Lawsuit in the State of Maryland

Cinematic Court of Law and Justice Trial: Judge Ruling Out a Positive Decision in a Civil Family Case, Close Up of a Striking Gavel to End Hearing.
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Anyone considering filing a lawsuit in Maryland is thinking of filing a civil lawsuit because criminal cases can only be filed by the district attorney's office. The variety of civil cases is extensive, ranging from small sums in dispute to millions, from landlord/tenant disputes to an injunction against a factory for toxic waste emissions.

Given the vast range of types of civil cases, it is not surprising that the legal procedure for initiating a lawsuit in Maryland differs depending on the case. It's a good idea for any Maryland resident to have an overview of the filing procedures for civil matters.

What Is a Civil Case?

Any case that is not a criminal charge is a civil case in Maryland, as elsewhere. These include cases that seek money damages, including tort (negligence) cases; contract breach cases; and landlord/tenant, personal injury and malpractice matters.

Different courts have authority to hear different types of cases in Maryland. This authority is called jurisdiction. For some types of cases, more than one court will have jurisdiction, and the individual can choose where to file. This is called concurrent jurisdiction. In others, only one court has jurisdiction and all cases of that type must be filed only in that court. This is called exclusive jurisdiction.

Note that every state code has laws called statutes of limitations. These laws set deadlines for filing certain actions. The idea is to make sure that the case is heard while the evidence is still fresh. Anyone who misses the window of the relevant statute of limitations is barred from bringing the suit, although some exceptions apply.

District Courts in Maryland

Every county in Maryland has at least one district court. These courts have jurisdiction to hear any case seeking money damages up to $30,000. They have exclusive jurisdiction over landlord/tenant and small claims court matters, where damages sought do not exceed $5,000. Generally a complaint must be filed in the district court in the county where the person being sued lives or where the dispute occurred.

The headquarters of the Maryland District Court is in Annapolis, but this is a statewide court system. There are a total of 33 district courts in 12 districts. To figure out the location of the court in a particular county, visit the website of the district court that offers a state map with addresses and phone numbers of every court in the state.

Anyone considering representing themselves rather than hiring an attorney would do best to file their case in district court. The court offers a Self-Help website to assist individuals representing themselves in matters like landlord/tenant, return of property, TROs and consumer matters like automobile repossessions.

Circuit Courts in Maryland

Circuit Courts in Maryland are the courts of general jurisdiction, meaning that every type of case that cannot be heard by districts courts can be heard in circuit courts. As far as cases seeking damages go, the rules are slightly complicated. If a case seeks:

  • Damages of less than $5,000, only the district court can hear it.
  • Damages between $5,000 and $30,000, either court can hear it.
  • Over $30,000 in damages, only circuit courts can hear it.

Circuit courts are the only courts where jury trials are held, although it is also possible to have a bench trial heard only by a judge. It also has exclusive jurisdiction over family law cases including divorces, domestic violence cases and appeals from other Maryland courts including district courts.

Every county has at least one circuit court. However, the state only has eight judicial circuits, each circuit court comprises multiple counties. Check the circuit court website for the list of different court locations.

What Is a Civil Complaint?

In Maryland, a civil complaint is the document that opens a new civil court case. In many cases, Maryland courts provide standard form complaints that an individual can just fill in with the facts and circumstances of their own case.

For example, form complaints are available in Maryland landlord/tenant matters and family law cases. However, more complex matters generally can't be squeezed into form complaints. In these cases, it is always wise to seek legal advice or hire an attorney to handle the action. Complaints must be drawn up according to court rules.

A complaint sets out:

  • Name and address of the person initiating the complaint, called the plaintiff.
  • Name and address of the person being sued, called the defendant.
  • Facts and circumstances leading up to the dispute.
  • Relief (remedy) that the plaintiff is asking from the defendant.

Filing the Complaint

After the complaint has been prepared and checked by an attorney, the plaintiff files it in the appropriate court in the appropriate county. That means that the individual bringing the lawsuit takes the document to the clerk of court for filing.

Proper County to File a Complaint

Keep in mind that a complaint must be filed in a particular county in order to have proper venue. This can be the county where the defendant lives or where the dispute arose.

Where does a dispute arise? If the suit is for a landlord/tenant issue, it should be filed in the county where the premises are located. If it is a medical malpractice case, it should be filed in the county where the malpractice took place. Anyone in doubt of where to file should talk to an attorney.

Expect to pay a fee to file the complaint, termed the filing fee. The amount of the filing fee depends on the type of complaint. Small claims court filing fee is currently $34.

Serving the Complaint

Once the complaint is filed, the clerk's office will issue a document called a summons. This service of process document advises the defendant that a suit against them has been filed, provides the name and address of the court in which it was filed, and sets out a deadline for the defendant to appear or answer the complaint.

Because justice requires that the defendant have the opportunity to present a defense, Maryland law requires that the summons and complaint be served on the defendant in a particular way. These are a few of the important service rules:

  • Plaintiff cannot be the person to give the complaint to the defendant.
  • Documents must be served either by the county sheriff or a process server.
  • Documents must be served on the defendant within 60 days of the summons being issued.
  • Once the complaint is served, the sheriff or process server must prepare an affidavit of service noting the time, date and place where service was made.
  • Plaintiff must file this document (proof of service) with the court.

After being served, a defendant has 30 days in which to file an answer to the complaint or file another responding motion.