Information You Need to File a Case
Filing a case requires four steps: 1) the writing and filing of the complaint; 2) the payment of the filing fee (or a waiver); 3) the notification of the party you are suing (this is usually called “service of process”); and 4) proof to the court that the defendant has been served.
1. The first step—writing and filing the complaint—is the most complicated. This is because you will need to make the following decisions:
- What type of relief you are asking the court to give you
Different people have different legal needs. For example, one person might want to have his or her child custody arrangements changed. A landlord might want to file suit against a tenant who owes rent. A property owner might want to ask the court to handle a contract dispute with a handyman. In each of these situations, the facts are different, so you would need to make sure that you are asking the court to decide what makes sense in your particular case. To do this, you will need to find out information on what options are available to you. An attorney can be very helpful with these issues. If you do not have an attorney, your local court’s “self-help center” or law library, and these web pages may help you.
- What court you will ask to hear your case (this depends on what you are asking for)
The type of case you have often determines which court will hear your case. Once you know what to ask for, you will have a better idea where you will file your case. For example, in Maryland, if you are filing a lawsuit for less that $5,000, you may file in District Court. However, you will need to file the complaint in the county where the other party (the defendant) lives, works or carries out a business. If your suit is asking for more than $5,000, or if you want a jury to decide your case (instead of the judge), then you may file the complaint in the Circuit Court for the county where the defendant lives, works or has a business. In many cases, you can also file your complaint in the county where the dispute arose. The dispute often is called “the cause of action.” There are other rules about special types of cases, like protective orders in domestic violence situations, so be sure to find out if your type of case might be subject to special rules. Your local law library may be able to point you in the right direction.
Sometimes, your case will not be heard in a state court. For example, if you are involved in a bankruptcy, a Federal Bankruptcy Court will hear your case. If your case involves residents from other states or concerns a Federal law, then a Federal Court might hear your case. The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland might provide additional information, and your local law library also may be able to point you in the right direction.
- How you write your complaint to make sure you include all of the necessary points.
If your case is heard in District Court, it is likely that you will be able to use an official court form to file your complaint. Many forms are available here. If your District Court case is a “small claim” for less than $5,000, then you should review the Court’s special “How To File a Small Claim” guide. Additional information about filing a small claim can be found on the Maryland Judiciary's small claims website.
If you are filing a complaint in Circuit Court, there are fewer “official forms” to use, but the points that your complaint must cover will be similar. Because there are fewer forms to use, you might want to look at sample complaints. Your local law library has some books, but you should remember that these samples do not fit every individual case. You will have to write your complaint on your own.
- You must include all of the following in your complaint:
- You will need to tell the court why you are filing the suit. You will need to explain your story in enough detail to allow the other party and the judge to understand everything you say. Also, your statement should cover all of the legal requirements that are necessary to show the court why you deserve the relief you are asking for. These legal requirements sometimes are called “elements” of an action. For example, in a lawsuit concerning a home improvement contract, one element that you will need to state is that there was a contract in force. You can find out more about “elements” of an action in books in your local law library. One such book is entitled “Pleading Causes of Action,” written by Paul Mark Sandler. While these elements always must exist, sometimes an uncomplicated case, like a “small claim” action, is easy to explain in a complaint. In Circuit Court, you also may need to file a Case Information Report, according to Maryland Rule 2-111. Form CC/DCM 002 is for civil, non-domestic cases, and Form CC/DCM 001 is for domestic cases. Read the Rule: MD Rule 2-111
- You also will need to tell the court whom you are suing. You must make sure you have the correct name and address of the person, people or company you are suing. It is important to follow all the rules in naming the defendant (the person or company you are suing). For example, the person you are suing must be 18 years old or older. If you are suing a company, you will need to use the official name given by the State Department of Assessments and Taxation. If you are suing a partnership or sole proprietorship, you will name the business owner as the defendant. If the person you are suing is in the armed services, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act may apply.
- You will need to tell the Court who you are and give your contact information. If you are proceeding without an attorney, simply put your own name, address, and telephone number in any space designated for “plaintiff’s attorney.” After your name, you should place the underlined Latin words “pro se.” This literally means “for oneself” and tells the court that you are not an attorney.
- Finally, you will need to tell the court how much money you are asking for. If the other part owes you interest, include the legal rate found in the Maryland Code, Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article, Section 11-106. Read the Law: MD Code Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 11-106
- You MAY NOT include certain personal identifier information in court filings.
Effective July 1, 2013, Maryland Court Rule 1-322.1 instructs persons who file documents with a court to keep certain unnecessary personal identifier information, including Social Security numbers, out of the court records unless there is a legal obligation to include such information.
The Rule sets forth exceptions, as well as alternatives when it is necessary to include personal identifier information.
Read the Law: MD Rule 1-322.1
2. Next, you pay the filing fee. You can find the list of all District Court fees here. You can find a basic list of Circuit Court fees here and a county-by-county chart of fees here. In addition to the cost of filing the case, there is also a fee if you want the court to have the defendant served (either by mail or by constable/sheriff). If you have limited income, you may be eligible for a waiver of fees. You must apply for a waiver of fees by using this form, which can be filed either in District Court or in Circuit Court.
3. The next step is to notify the defendant of the lawsuit. You do this through a legal procedure called “service of process.” There are 3 ways to do this: by Certified Mail; Private Process; or by the Sheriff (or Constable).
- Certified Mail
If you plan to notify the defendant by mail, you must use certified mail (also called “registered mail” or “return receipt requested”) to send the complaint. If you send it yourself the Court will mail you a copy of the Writ of Summons. Or, the Court will send it for the cost of the mail and a small service fee. It is important to use certified mail, because this is the only way you will have a “receipt” that the mail was delivered to the defendant. If the defendant does not accept and sign for the certified mail, then you did not properly serve the defendant. You must keep the returned receipt because you will have to show it to the Court as proof that you served the defendant. You should save copies of all documents sent by mail, as well as the postal receipts from certified letters and packages.
- Private Process Server
A “private process server” is a person who hand delivers court documents (such as complaints, summonses, and subpoenas) to people. If you choose to serve the defendant by private process, the Court will mail you a copy of the Writ of Summons. Any person, 18 years or older, who is not party to the lawsuit may serve the defendant. This individual will sign a document (called the “Affidavit of Service”) stating that the Complaint, Summons, and supporting documents were served on the defendant. The Affidavit of Service is the proof you need to send to the court that a private process server has served the defendant. There are many companies in the business of serving defendants in civil claims. You can find such companies by looking in the business yellow pages or even by calling a local law firm and asking for a reference. You should always ask about the rates before you hire. You may also use a family member or friend, as long as they are not a party to the lawsuit, to privately serve the defendant with the papers.
- Sheriff or Constable
One of the county sheriff’s responsibilities is serving defendants in civil cases. (Constables can serve papers in District Court cases.) Check the District Court fee schedule for sheriff or constable service costs. Contact the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office for information on fees for service of process in Circuit Court. The Court will deliver the Writ of Summons, Complaint Form and supporting documents to the sheriff for service on the defendant. After serving the papers, the sheriff returns a second copy of the Writ of Summons to the Court, certifying that the defendant has been served.
4. Finally, you need to prove that you have actually served the defendant with a notice of your lawsuit. If you sent the Complaint and Summons by certified mail yourself, you must return the receipt of delivery to the Court. Mail the completed form back to the court along with a cover letter confirming that you are enclosing proof of service for filing in this case. If you used a private process server, that person must sign a document, called the “Affidavit of Service,” stating that the papers were served on the defendant. You must send the affidavit to the court. If you had the defendant served by a sheriff or constable you will receive notification that the defendant was served.
If the Court does not receive Proof of Service within the time, you may not be able to present your case on the trial date. There are rules to follow in case service does not happen on time. Because these rules are specialized for each court and your situation, you should check with your local court’s “self-help center” or law library.
Responding to a Complaint
After a plaintiff files a complaint, the defendant has an opportunity to respond. The time period for responding is different in each court.
In District Court cases, a defendant must respond in the following ways in order to have his or her day in Court:
- File a Notice of Intention to Defend: The defendant must file this within 15 days of receiving the summons. The Notice is on the bottom half of the summons. The Court will send the plaintiff a copy of this notice.
- File a Counterclaim, Cross-claim, or a Third-Party Complaint. Generally, a counterclaim or cross-claim must be filed within 10 days of the deadline for filing the Notice of Intention to Defend. A third-party claim must be filed any time before 10 days before trial.
- A counterclaim is when the defendant sues the plaintiff.
- A cross-claim can occur only when there is more than one plaintiff or more than one defendant in the suit. A cross-claim is filed by one party against a co-party on the same side of the original case.
- A third-party complaint occurs when a defendant files suit against yet another party because of the plaintiff’s original claim. In filing these types of claims, the defendant would follow the same procedures as the plaintiff originally had done.
A defendant may decide to file a motion, in addition to the responses above. For example, a defendant could do the following:
- File a Motion to Transfer the Case to Circuit Court for a Trial by Jury. In District Court, the judge decides the case. Any party can always choose to have a District Court case heard by a jury in Circuit Court. The plaintiff must do this by filing a demand for a jury trial along with the complaint. A defendant may do this within 10 days of the deadline for filing the Notice of Intention to Defend. Jury trials can become very complicated, however, so it would be useful to evaluate your situation again before proceeding in this way.
- File a Motion to Dismiss. Maryland Rule 3-326 has special provisions for the dismissal of a case that is not filed in the correct county.
- Claim that the plaintiff did not give proper notice. The defendant would do this through a pre-trial request or an argument at trial. If the request or argument is successful, the judge would postpone the trial, and the plaintiff would have to serve notice properly.
A defendant could also choose to ignore the summons. However, if the defendant fails to respond within 15 days of receiving the summons, he or she may lose the case automatically.
Finally, a defendant may try to settle the case out of court. If one party has an attorney, the other party must always contact the attorney and not the party. Otherwise, if both parties are self-representing their own cases, they may be able to work to settle the case themselves. Still, it’s a good idea to use mediation services whenever possible.
In Circuit Court, there are more rules to follow for answering a complaint. In most cases, if the defendant does not file an answer or counterclaim within 30 days of service of process, he or she will automatically lose. Maryland Rule 2-321 does list a few exceptions to the 30-day rule, so it is important for defendants to review that Rule as soon as they are served with a complaint. Read the Rule: MD Rule 2-321
Answers in Circuit Court are more formal than in District Court. An answer must follow the format and captioning stated in Rule 1-301. In the answer, a defendant must admit or deny the facts the plaintiff gives in the complaint and contain any legal defenses listed in Maryland Rule 2-323. In Circuit Court, a defendant may also file certain procedural motions before filing an answer. Some of these motions, which are listed in Maryland Rule 2-322, can only be made at this point in the case. Finally, in some instances outlined in Maryland Rule 3-323, a defendant may need to file a Case Information Report. It is important to consult the Maryland Rules when answering a complaint filed in Circuit Court. Your local law library also may have additional books and sample forms on answering complaints. Read the Rules: MD Rule 3-323, 322