The 5 Stages of the Litigation Process in New Jersey
The Pleading StageA filing of the Complaint and the issuance of a Summons by the court generally starts the lawsuit. The Summons and Complaint must be served on the defendant, either by a process server in person or upon a person at the defendant's home or, sometimes, by certified and regular mail. The defendant then has a period of time that varies from state to state to file an Answer or to ask the court by written motion to dismiss the case (35 days in NJ), but the time is usually extended by the lawyers. The defendant also must assert any cross-claims against other defendants and any counterclaims against the plaintiff within that time. After the other parties respond to any cross-claims or counterclaims, if required, the pleading stage ends. Frequently, one of the parties later reopens the pleading stage by asking the court by written motion for leave to file an amended pleading.
The Discovery and Motion StageEach side can serve requests for discovery of the information and evidence held by the other side. These requests can be in the form of written questions (called interrogatories), or a request for documents, or to take an oral deposition under oath (testimony before a court reporter). Frequently, the parties' counsel disagree about whether the requests are proper, which leads to written motions to the court asking that the court either limit or allow the discovery. The courts in New Jersey tend to be very liberal in allowing discovery even though it is intrusive and sometimes embarrassing.
Each side also can move for summary judgment, which is a written request to the court to decide the case without a trial, on the ground that none of the evidence is reasonably disputable.
The Trial StageThe court usually sets a deadline for the completion of discovery. After the deadline passes, the case is put on the trial calendar. Some cases are assigned to specific judges for trial, but most cases are assigned to a judge by the presiding judge on the date that the parties appear for the call of the trial calendar. Usually, there are more cases on the calendar then there are judges available, so the case may be have to go through the trial call process on several occasions before it finally goes to trial.
The trial begins with selection of the jury (if a jury trial), followed by opening statements, then by the presentation of testimony of live witnesses in court, then by closing statements to the jury or the judge. If a jury trial, the judge gives detailed instructions to the jury (called the jury charge), after which the jury deliberates and, in almost all civil cases, reaches a verdict, which is then read in open court.
The Enforcement of Judgment StageOnce the jury renders its verdict or the judge issues his or her decision, the court enters a written judgment, after which the parties have 45 days to file an appeal. If the judgment is for a sum of money, the prevailing party may ask the Sheriff to enforce the judgment by seizing the property or money of the judgment debtor, unless the judgment debtor posts an insurance bond for the amount of the judgment, which stays all enforcement proceedings.
The Appeal StageAn appeal goes to a three judge panel of the Appellate Division of the Superior Court. Before that Court will hear the appeal, the appealing party must file a complete copy of the entire record from the trial court and each side must file detailed briefs setting forth all of their arguments and explanations about the factual issues and the governing cases previously decided by the courts.
If one of the three judges dissents from the decision of the Appellate Division, or if the case raises special issues, a further appeal may be taken to the Supreme Court of the State of New Jersey, which also reviews the complete record, receives a new set of detailed briefs from each side, and hears oral argument by the lawyers.
In rare cases, an issue arising under the Constitution of the United States allows a disappointed party to file a request that the Supreme Court of the United States re-hear the case but very few of the many requests made are granted by that Court.