In Arizona, a civil lawsuit begins by serving a complaint and a summons. A complaint is a legal document that formally charges or alleges that another person or company violated the legal rights of another. The person or company bringing a complaint is referred to as the plaintiff, and the person charged or alleged of violating a legal right is referred to as the defendant.
Once filed, a complaint must be served with a summons on the defendant within 120 days. Ariz. R. Civ. Proc. 4(i). This can be accomplished by having a process server deliver the documents by hand to the person or to a person (usually over 14 years old or 16 years old) at the person's residence. If the person cannot be found, then a process called service by publication can be used. This is done by publishing a notice in the newspaper.
Once a complaint has been served, a defendant usually has 20 calendar days (not including the day of service) to file a response, called an "answer" with the court. A copy of the answer must also be mailed to the plaintiff. An answer responds to the charges or allegations and gives the defendant to raise any theories that would allow the defendant to not be responsible under the law.
Motion to Dismiss
A motion to dismiss can be filed in place of an answer. A motion to dismiss asks the court to dismiss the complaint because there is some defect in it or in how it was served. Arizona Rule of Civil Procedure 12 has some of the grounds that a motion to dismiss can be based upon. If the complaint is dismissed at this stage, it is usually "without prejudice," which means the other party can refile the complaint unless the time period for filing it under the law, or statute of limitations, has run out.
Discovery and Deposition
Within 40 days after the defendant answers, both parties must provide a Initial Disclosure Statement to the other side. Arizona Rule of Civil Procedure 26.1 describes what has to be provided to the other party. In brief, it is all of the information that a person has or can get with reasonable efforts that may be useful to the other side. If a party does not provide the Initial Disclosure Statement, the other side can ask the court to compel the party to do so. (Arizona courts do not like to get involved in discovery disputes, so be careful about asking unless you have good reason). Both parties can also ask the party to answer questions, called Interrogatories, or to admit certain facts, called Requests for Admission. A deposition, or an interview under oath, can also be performed.
Motion for Summary Judgment
A motion for summary judgment can occur after an answer is filed. An MSJ for short, is often filed after discovery to educate the judge about the issues and ask him or her to dispose of the case before it goes to a jury. The standard in Arizona is whether any reasonable jury could conclude against the MSJ. A MSJ often ends the case, especially if the facts are not disputed, for the judge usually decide how the law applies in that case.
Arizona law requires certain claims, usually about $50,000 or less, to be heard before a court-appointed arbitrator. Ariz. R. Civ. P. 72 to 77. The arbitrators are local attorneys with some experience (but not necessarily in a particular area of law). The arbitrator's decision is not binding on the court or the jury, but can cause a case to settle because if a party appeals the arbitrator's decision but does not beat the arbitrator's decision by at least 25%, the attorneys' fees of the party that did not appeal the arbitrator's decision must be paid by the party that appealed the decision.
Mediation is usually attempted before trial. Similar to arbitration, mediation has an experienced attorney or retired judge attempting to talk sense into both sides to get them to reach an agreement. The fees for the mediator's time are usually split between both parties. This is an optional step and both parties must agree to it.
If arbitration fails, and a motion for summary judgment is not successful, then a trial is held. Even if the issues are simple, the trial may take significant time (and money), as the jury must be selected, the evidence must be carefully presented, and arguments made before the jury makes its decision.
Judgment, or Where Is My Money?
After a judge grants a motion for summary judgment or a jury gives an award, a party asks the judge to sign a proposed form of a judgment. When the judge signs this, the other party legally owes the amount of the judgment. If the owing party does not pay, then the party that received the judgment must pay to have the judgment enforced. That is beyond the scope of this guide. Suffice it to say that unless the other side probably has money to pay a judgment, it is not usually wise to begin a lawsuit.
Thank you for reading this guide. If you have further questions about a specific complaint in Arizona or how to answer one, you should consult with an attorney licensed in Arizona, even if you plan to represent yourself. You may save yourself from a costly mistake. Good luck.