Read each document from beginning to end. Figure out exactly who is the Plaintiff (the person bringing the lawsuit)? Is it the property owner (the landlord), a property management company, or someone else? Who is being sued? Is it you, someone else or both? Is the person suing you represented by a lawyer (if so, the lawyer's information will appear on the papers)? If the person suing you has a lawyer, what is his or her name, address and telephone number? Write these things down of a piece of paper other than the documents served on you.
what the notice is asking you to do. Is it asking you to move out? Is it asking you to pay rent or do something else within three days? If you have difficulty understanding what the document says, get help understanding it right away. You may have only a few days (or less) to act to keep you home.
Calculate When You Need to File Your Response with the Court
You are required to file a written response with the court within FIVE CALENDAR DAYS of the effective date of service. If that fifth day is a holiday or weekend day, you have until the next day the court is open after that fifth day to file your response. If you are even one day late filing your response with the court, the other side can ask the court to enter your default and a default judgment against you (i.e., you lose with the court never hearing your side of the story).
The effective date of service depends on how you were served the papers. If someone handed you the papers, that is the effective date of service. However, if the papers were left with someone else at you home or work, or posted on your door, the effective daye of service is TEN CALENDAR DAYS after when they were also mailed to you. In such case, you have FIFTEEN CALENDAR DAYS from the mailing to file your response with the court.
What to File with the Court
Your response filed wih the court must be in the proper format (a letter or phone call is not enough) and a copy of the response must also be served on the other side by an adult who is not named in the lawsuit (service by mail is acceptable).
There are several choices of documents to file in response to an unlawful detainer summons and complaint, these include an answer, a motion to quash service of the summons, a demurrer, and a motion to strike the complaint or part of it.
Each of these options have their pros and cons. However, other than the answer, you really need professional help to properly draft and file these documents. If you confer with a tenants' lawyer she or he can discuss your options with you.
If you decide to file an answer, it would still be a good idea to speak with a tenants' law expert for advice of how to fill in the form answer. The form Answer--Unlawful Detainer is available at the court clerk's office or on-line (but you cannot file on-line).
What Happens After You File Your Response with the Court
If you file any response with the court other than an answer, the court will decide the motion or demurrer after the other side has a chance to file papers in opposition to it and you have a chance to file a reply. There will be a hearing on the motion or demurrer. Make certain you check the court's local rules for when the tentative decision will be available (usually a one or two court-days before the hearing). If you lose the tentative ruling and want to be heard in court, you must notify the other side, and sometimes the court, one or two court-days before the hearing on the motion or demurrer. If neither side asks to be heard, the tentative ruling becomes the final ruling on the motion or demurrer.
If you filed an answer, the other side will likely immediately ask the court to set the case for trial. The trial is supposed to be set for a date within 20 days of when a trial date is requested.
Additional resources provided by the author
Contact the Clerk's office of the court where the case was filed (the name and address of the court are on the summons). They may have services to help people understand what is happening when they are sued.