The Very Basics of a Lawsuit

How does a lawsuit work? How do you “file” a lawsuit? What is a “Plaintiff” and what is a “Defendant?” What is a “hearing?” Get familiar with the basic concepts of how the Court functions and the vocabulary that attaches itself to law.

The Parties
The party that initiates the suit is known as the Plaintiff. The party that is on the receiving end of the suit is called the Defendant. Informally, Plaintiff and Defendant are often called the “parties” to a case. By comparison, an individual or a company that is not part of the suit but is still entangled in the suit (say, as a witness) is called a non-party.

The Pleadings
A pleading is a document filed with the Court by a party, such as Plaintiff or Defendant. A pleading can also be a motion ( a pleading within an ongoing suit), or other document which is part of the suit. A pleading is also commonly called an instrument within the Texas statutes. A pleading commonly requests something from the court, and this request is colloquially called “relief.”

The Court functions by receiving written pleadings from the parties. This is called “filing” the pleading. You will often hear the term “filed a motion” in relation to legal matters, and now you understand what that means.

In Texas, the Petition is the pleading which is filed by the Plaintiff and which initiates the suit. In federal Court, this is called the Complaint.

An Answer is the pleading filed by the Defendant which asks the Court to deny Plaintiff what they seek in the Petition. Often, it is generically called the “response,” as well.

A motion is a pleading filed within a suit that is already filed and pending with the Court. Motions are typically filed while the suit is already pending. You cannot file a motion before initiating the suit itself, so naturally, the petition has to be filed first, or at the very least, the motions have to be filed with the petition.

Motions are typically used to have the Court to temporarily resolve issues of immediate importance within the suit that cannot wait for the trial date that may be months off. Examples of this include temporary custody orders in a custody suit, or, a temporary injunction to stop a party from selling off assets that may be part of the suit.

The reply to a motion is called just that – a reply or a response. Many parties including some attorneys use the term “reply” or “response” generically (and wrongly) to mean an Answer. The good news is that it is often easy to understand what a party means in such a situation from the overall context.

A party that files said motion is called Movant. The other party is then called the Non-Movant.

Finally, a reply to a reply to a motion is called a surreply.

The Decisions
The Court will either hold an oral hearings on the pleadings where the parties verbally argue what is written in their respective pleading, or, in some cases, the pleadings can be decided “on submission” (meaning the Judge simply reads the arguments in the pleadings and makes a decision without the need for an oral hearing). Then the Court renders a decision.

A decision in the suit is called an order. For example, once the Judge makes a decision on a party’s motion, that decision and the document on which the Judge makes his decision known in writing is an order.

The final hearing for the suit is called a trial. A decision in trial is called a judgment (in Texas probate and family courts, a judgment is properly called a decree).

In most instances, you may request a trial by jury in Texas, meaning that the judgment decision is made by a number of your peers. By default however, the judgment is made by the Judge, unless either Plaintiff or Defendant puts in a timely request for a jury trial ahead of time. A trial is where the decision is made by a Judge is called a bench trial. A trial by jury is called a jury trial. The decision by a jury is called a verdict.

Any motion within the suit is decided by a Judge, regardless of whether it is a bench trial or a jury trial. In other words, the jury is only in charge of the final trial decision, whereas any motions that may be filed by the parties in the suit while it is leading up to trial is decided by the Judge.