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CHAPTER 8: OVERVIEW OF CIVIL CASES - Table of Contents

8.1 - Introduction8.2 - Where to find civil law8.3 - Starting a civil case: the complaint8.4 - Serving the complaint8.5 - Responding to the complaint8.6 - Requesting a jury8.7 - Alternate Dispute Resolution8.8 - Initial Procedural Requirements8.9 - Pretrial Discovery8.10 - Summary judgment motions8.11 - Trial8.12 - Damages, Costs and Attorneys Fees

8.3 STARTING A CIVIL CASE: THE COMPLAINT

A general civil case usually begins with the filing of a Complaint. The person or entity that files the Complaint is usually called the Plaintiff. The other person or entity in the dispute is usually called the Defendant. The Plaintiff generally explains in the Complaint the factual background of the dispute, alleges that the Defendant has done something unlawful or legally objectionable (this kind of allegation is often called a "Cause of Action" or a "Claim for Relief"), and ends by asking the Court to order the Defendant to do something or to provide some other kind of relief. Wonder is sometimes expressed at complaints that do not ask for a specific some of monetary damages. Although that practice used to be common, Colorado's state procedural rules in fact now prohibit a plaintiff from requesting any specific amount of damages. The analogous federal rule does not contain such a prohibition.

In preparing a Complaint, the Plaintiff has to first decide in what court it will be filed. Sometimes there will only be one appropriate court but sometimes there will be several from which to choose. The first choice is state court or federal court. Some claims (such as some claims for violation of federal securities laws) can be filed only in federal court, because they are based on some federal law that says that such claims are the exclusive province of the federal court. Some claims (employment discrimination claims, for example) can be filed in either federal or state court. Some claims can usually be filed only in state court. When a choice is possible, different attorneys will have different reasons for preferring either state court or federal court. In some instances, if the defendant being sued is a large and prominent local company, a plaintiff's attorney may fear that company would have a hometown advantage in the state court for the county where its headquarters is located and prefer to file the case in federal court. For instance, a plaintiff suing the University of Colorado may be nervous about having that case decided by a Boulder County judge or jury. Sometimes timing will be a concern, as during the 1990's especially it took significantly longer for most civil cases to get resolved in the Colorado Federal District Court than they would in most of the State District Courts across the State. Some attorneys will prefer the state judges in a particular state judicial district, while other attorneys may feel more confident with the federal judges.

If the Plaintiff decides to file the Complaint in state court, the next decision is which type of state court and in which judicial district. The decision about which state court requires consideration of which court has appropriate jurisdiction (the legal power and authority to decide the case) over that particular kind of case. If not very much money is at stake, the Plaintiff could file the Complaint in Small Claims Court, which has jurisdiction over cases in which damages of less than $5,000 are being sought. For slightly more serious cases, the Plaintiff could instead file in County Court, which has jurisdiction over cases in which damages of up to $15,000 are being sought. Regardless of the amount of damages being sought, the Plaintiff can always file in District Court, but only the District Court has jurisdiction to award more than $15,000 in damages and issue an injunction (a court order requiring a defendant to do something other than may money damages or to stop doing something). In some cases, county courts may issue restraining orders.

In addition to having jurisdiction over the particular case (this is often called "subject-matter jurisdiction") the court must also have jurisdiction over the particular defendant ("personal jurisdiction"). Defendants who are individual residents of Colorado or business entities formed or headquartered in Colorado will be subject to the jurisdiction of Colorado courts. Alternatively, if an out-of-state individual commits a tort while in Colorado (as by negligently driving through the state), or if an out-of-state business markets and sells a dangerous product within the state, there will also generally be a sufficient jurisdictional basis for the Colorado courts over a claim for injuries resulting from those acts. The question of personal jurisdiction requires consideration of a statute adopted by Colorado (like many other states) called the "long-arm statute" (C.R.S. 13-1-124), a statute which represents the Legislature's effort to extend the "long arm" of Colorado courts' jurisdiction over non-Colorado defendants to the fullest extent permitted by the United States Constitution.

A related decision for a plaintiff involves determining the particular location of the state court in which to file the complaint. This decision, called the selection of venue, is governed by Rule 98 of the Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure. A particular court will be deemed the proper venue of a case for example, if it is located within the county where the defendant lives, or where the plaintiff lives if the defendant is served there with the complaint, or where the alleged tort or breach of contract occurred.

A piece of paper filed in a lawsuit with the court is generally referred to as a "pleading." A complaint is but one type of pleading. Beyond a complaint and the responsive "answer" filed by a defendant, pleadings often take the form of a motion, in which one (or more) of the parties asks the court to do something in that case. Most of the time, the other party (or parties) then has 15 days to file a "response" to that motion, with the moving party then often having the option of filing a final "reply" to that response. Once all those pleadings have been filed, the issue is considered "ripe" for decision. The court may make its decision only on the basis of the written pleadings, or may instead decide that it is preferable to schedule a hearing at which the parties and their attorneys can present oral arguments and in some instances witnesses and exhibits to flesh out or support their positions.

Whatever kind of pleading is being filed, it usually has a distinct look, because of statewide rules that govern its form and format. Along with the name of the court in which it is being filed, the attorneys' names, and the official case number assigned by the court, the top of the pleading will always list the parties' names. This listing is sometimes referred to as the case "caption." For instance, a car-accident case caption may be Smith vs. Jones; a divorce case caption may be Smith v. Smith, an employment-termination case caption may be Smith v. IBM, Inc. These case captions and the corresponding case numbers are the way that the courts and the parties' attorneys refer to and keep track of particular cases.

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