Responding to A Complaint If You’ve Been Sued

A woman stressed after receiving court papers

Whether it’s a subpoena or a summons and complaint, getting sued can be an emotional and nerve-wracking process for most people. You know that court matters are impending when a process server presents you with a summons and a complaint. The first thing to do in such a  situation is to take a deep breath and calm yourself, as panicking will only make matters worse.

There’s a process to adhere to when you find out someone has officially sued you. However, since most people have never experienced a situation like this, they aren’t aware of the formalities of the procedure. We recommend calling your attorney urgently to seek legal counsel. 

Depending on the type of papers the process server serves you, the process of responding to a complaint may vary slightly. A process server will present you with divorce summons papers on behalf of your spouse, signaling the end of your marriage. Whereas, if you find a process server serving you with a civil summons, it means you’re about to be entangled in a drawn-out civil action lawsuit. Preparing yourself according is essential to ensuring you’re ready to face the matter in court.

Most people think that receiving a call to court is the worst thing that could happen, but that isn’t the truth. Failure to respond to the complaint can yield significantly worse results, which is why you need to act promptly. 

Why is a Process Server Presenting Me with Court Documents?

A process server presents you with vital court documents to protect your constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment of the US constitution. The Service of Process clause entails that a defendant receives adequate notice when facing legal action in a court.

An old transcript of the US constitution

Process servers are essential to the law system, and many law firms often employ their services to present papers to defendants. Many states don’t allow a plaintiff to serve court papers to the defendant. In addition, they require that a third party over eighteen present the defendants with the court papers. 

Hiring a process server fulfills these requirements and ensures that the defendant receives crucial court files on time. Court cases cannot proceed unless the defendant has received adequate notice, which is why process serving is essential. Moreover, courts require evidence to showcase that the defendant did receive a notification. Process servers sign a proof of service, also known as an affidavit of service. Moreover, t

he proof of service is an official document that can serve as a testimony in court. 

The Contents of a Summons and Complaint

When process servers serve someone with court papers, they typically present them with two vital court documents: a summons and a complaint. Reading the contents of these documents and understanding them is essential to distinguish the difference between the two. 

A summons usually states the name and address of the court where the plaintiff has filed a lawsuit against you. It also contains relevant information, such as how long you have before your deadline to respond to the complaint by filing a written answer with the court elapses. The document will also contain information about the fee you’ll need to pay to file your written response to the complaint. 

Courts typically staple the complaint behind the summons. The complaint details the case contents, such as who the plaintiff is and why they’re suing you. Moreover, the complaint includes information like what the plaintiff is asking the court to do.

How Long Do You Have Before Responding to a Complaint?

The court usually provides the defendants with a limited amount of time to respond in writing. Typically, most courts allow twenty days for the defendant to issue a response, starting from the day after the process server has served them with a summons and complaint. The New York Government also follows these standard protocols, allowing defendants twenty days to respond if the process server presented them with court papers via personal service and thirty days if the defendant received court documents through other means. Failure to respond timely results in the court placing the defendant on default, making it easier for the plaintiff to attain a default judgment against you. 

What are Default Judgments?

A default judgment refers to when a judge or a court rule favorably for a motion by the complaining party.  Judges will often pass a default judgment if the defendant fails to adhere to a court-ruled action, such as responding promptly to a court summons.

How to Obtain a Default Judgment?

The complaining party can usually obtain a default judgment in two ways:

The first method involves applying to the judgment clerk at the County Clerk’s Office. This method of attaining a default judgment only works in limited scenarios, such as the plaintiff seeks money damages only and no other form of relief. The plaintiff must submit a detailed affidavit of facts along with proof of service to the defendant. Submitting an affidavit of facts is essential for several reasons. It helps explain the facts of the case to the court, providing sufficient evidence of notice being given to the defendant when presented with proof of service alongside it. It also helps the court determine how the plaintiff calculated the damage that they seek.

Alternatively, the plaintiff can also appeal directly to a judge by filing for a motion for a default judgment. However, before the plaintiff can appeal directly to the judge, they must submit a Request for Judicial Intervention (RJI). If the court grants the request, a judge receives the case assignment. The motion for a default judgment must prove the case’s merit, presenting the facts and the sum due, along with an affidavit of service. Most judges will grant the motion if there’s insufficient opposition to the proposal and the paperwork’s appropriate.

Avoiding a Default Judgment 

Preparing a written response after receiving a summons is imperative to avoid a default judgment. A written response to a complaint is also known as a notice of appearance since it acknowledges that the defendant will appear to oppose the lawsuit. The document must have the defendant’s attorney’s name on it. If a corporation faces a civil case, the court ordains hiring an attorney to represent them.

To avoid defaulting, the defendant must send a copy of the notice of appearance to the plaintiff and file it with the County Clerk’s office. In some cases, you may receive a summons that doesn’t include any details about the plaintiff’s complaint, requiring you to attach a demand for a complaint with your notice of appearance. The plaintiff receives twenty business days to provide you with a complaint. Once you receive the complaint, you must respond to the plaintiff with an answer or a motion to dismiss.

What is the Answer?

The answer is similar to a complaint except that it states the defendant’s position regarding the case. The law requires you to begin your answer by summarizing the proceedings. The body of your answer should contain several paragraphs, each highlighting your response to the plaintiff’s allegations against you. There are three ways you can answer each allegation: admitting or denying its truth and denying sufficient knowledge to ascertain whether the allegation is true or false. It’s vital to note that the court treats any unaddressed allegations as an admittance of the truth, so you must proofread your answer carefully and seek legal advice. 

Your answer can also sometimes contain an affirmative defense. An affirmative defense is when the defendant introduces evidence that negates criminal or civil liability if the evidence is credible. Entrapment, self-defense, and necessity are some examples of an affirmative defense.

Your answer to a complaint can also include a counterclaim. A counterclaim states that you’re seeking relief from the plaintiff. You must outline counterclaims in a separate section, following the defendant’s response to the allegations. A defendant can also include cross-claims in their answer, which assert claims against another defendant or several defendants. 

Once you’ve prepared your answer, you must have your attorney sign it. If you’re choosing to represent yourself, your signature will suffice. Unlike the serving of papers, you don’t need a process server to deliver the documents to the plaintiff personally. Instead, you can mail the plaintiff and their attorney the documents. However, timely submission of the answer to the County Clerk’s Office is still mandatory.

Filing a Motion to Dismiss

You can request the court to dismiss an existing lawsuit by filing a motion to dismiss. You’ll have to pay a fee to file a motion.

Defendants can use a motion to dismiss when they believe the complaint doesn’t state a reasonable basis for a lawsuit. Alternatively, you can also file the document if you didn’t receive the summons properly. Appropriately receiving summons entails that a process server personally presented you with the documents. You can also file a motion if you believe that the lawsuit didn’t commence on time or for a host of other reasons. 

Defendants can also file a motion to dismiss a complaint instead of submitting an answer to said complaint. Timely filing of the document is essential. Otherwise, you’ll have to face a default judgment.

Timely submitting the motion can also help extend your timeframe to serve a response. If a judge denies the submission, the case continues, but the defendant receives an additional ten days to present the plaintiff with an answer.

The defendant must submit the answer within ten days, along with a notice of entry. The notice of entry is a one-sentence document that informs you when the County Clerk Office officially recorded your documents in its system.

Steps to Take When Someone is Suing You

Now that you’re aware of the entire process and the documents you’ll require, allow us to walk you through the steps you need to take when someone sues you.

Facing a civil action or a criminal action lawsuit isn’t a pleasant time. Many people undergo extreme stress during this process, severely impacting their happiness, work productivity, and physical and mental well-being. However, by equipping yourself with the necessary knowledge and the appropriate help, you can make this process less unburdening. Here are the steps to follow: 

Be Active

As soon as the process server presents you with the court documents, read through them. You must familiarize yourself with the contents of the summons and the complaint. Take some time to understand the allegations the plaintiff is levying against you. Once you’ve read the documents, ensure that you’re calm and relaxed. Take a walk because studies show that even a brief, ten-minute walk can help reduce depression and elevate your mood. 

After you’ve ensured that you’re calm and ready to proceed, it’s time to act. Time is of the essence when someone is suing you because you only have a limited window to respond. Otherwise, you risk receiving default judgment. Get in touch with your attorney immediately, and fill them in on the details of the lawsuit. We recommend scheduling an appointment at the earliest to seek their legal counsel.

 A woman relaxing herself by meditating

Check Your Insurance

We also recommend checking your insurance coverage to see their policies and deadlines. Sometimes, some insurance policies have coverage that protects you or your business from lawsuits. If your insurance covers the case you’re facing, you’ll have to notify the insurance provider immediately. Many insurance policies have strict deadlines regarding informing the provider, and failure to adhere to these deadlines can result in the termination of your insurance policy. Consider consulting your attorney to seek their assistance in helping you with your insurance.


We don’t recommend speaking to anyone about the impending case except your attorney. Talking to others can adversely affect your position as a defendant because if the plaintiff finds out that you’ve shared details with others, they can leverage the information and use it against you. Similarly, avoid all contact with the plaintiff. 

In divorce cases, this can be challenging since your soon-to-be ex-spouse is the one filing the lawsuit against you. However, we recommend entrusting your attorney to handle all communication with them.

If you wish to communicate a vital matter to the plaintiff, do it through their attorney while having your counsel present. However, be careful with anything you say in front of the opposing counsel because they’ll try to use anything they can against you in court.

Preserving Documents

You have an obligation as the defendant to preserve any documents pertinent to the case. Failure to do so can result in court sanctions, ranging from monetary fines to jail time. Ensure that you safely preserve all the relevant documents and refrain from destroying them. We suggest making copies for security and for sharing with your attorney.

 Information preserved in storage boxes

Preparing a Response

Your attorney will help you craft your response to the complaint. In some cases, filing a motion to dismiss may be apt, especially if the basis for the lawsuit is shaky. Your attorney should be able to help argue the reasons for you if you file for a motion to dismiss. Seek your attorney’s opinion regarding if filing for a motion to dismiss is a viable option.

On the other hand, if your attorney doesn’t think the case warrants a dismissal, you’ll have to submit an answer to the complaint. Consult with your attorney to help you prepare your response and defenses against the allegations you face. 

In addition to preparing an answer, you may also choose to file for counterclaims. Filing for counterclaims can be viable if the plaintiff has wronged you. Refer to your attorney’s expertise regarding whether opting for counterclaims is a viable strategy. Make sure to deliberate over filing counterclaims because if you don’t include them in the answer, you won’t be able to file counterclaims against the plaintiff.

Serving Third Parties

In some instances, you can not only file a counterclaim against the plaintiff, but you can also serve claims against third parties. If you and your attorney can find sufficient evidence holding a third party responsible for the allegations against you, you may be able to serve them with claims. Your attorney will examine your case and help you determine if filing claims against third parties is possible.


Contrary to popular belief, most lawsuits don’t end up in court. Instead, the concerned parties usually resolve them in pre-trial meetings. Seek your counsel’s advice regarding whether a settlement is possible. Also, ensure that you keep an open mind to settling with the opposition. According to the US Justice Department, approximately 97 percent of civil lawsuits end in a settlement. Court cases are long, torrid affairs that require countless resources, which is why so many lawsuits settle before ending up in court.

A settlement agreement sealed with a handshake

Maintain Contact

Even though your attorney will handle most of your legal matters, we recommend that you stay in constant contact with them. Ensure that you ask your attorney about recent developments and any new facts that may have emerged. If you have any concerns about the case, feel free to seek advice from your attorney.

An attorney on the phone with his client

Handling Court Documents in NY

Whether you’re a defendant or a plaintiff in a lawsuit, you’re bound to find piles of court documents covering your desk. You’ll have to file answers and motions, complaints, and counterclaims. Ensuring that the relevant documents reach the opposing party and the court can be an arduous task. 

At Elite Legal Services of NY, we can assist you with serving court papers in NY, send divorce summons or civil action summons and complaints. 

Contact us today to acquire the premium legal processing services in New York.


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