If you’ve been served with a lawsuit in Pennsylvania state court, you generally have about 30 days to respond to the Complaint (more on that below). You have only 21 days if you are sued in federal court.
The first documents that you file in court are extremely important because your failure to raise certain defenses might mean that they are lost forever. In fact, even answering a complaint could prejudice you in regards to your rights. But you will almost always want to file something in response to a Complaint, or else it will result in a default judgment.
Answering a Complaint in Pennsylvania State Court
Under state court procedure, after you are served by the sheriff or other authorized process server, you are told that you have twenty days to answer the complaint. This is technically true.
But, on the twenty-first day, you will be mailed what is called a “Ten Day Notice.” This notice warns you that you have failed to answer or properly object to the complaint in a timely manner and are technically in default. After these 10 days elapse, if you still not responded to the complaint, then the Plaintiff may move for a default judgment against you for the amount that they are claiming in their complaint.
In some cases, you may wish to “remove” (that is, transfer) the case to federal court, which must typically be done within 30 days of being served. Not every suit can be removed to federal court.
Answering a Federal Lawsuit
In Federal Court, the rules are a little less forgiving. Within 21 days after being served, you must file an answer or an appropriate Motion to Dismiss. Failure to do so will allow the Plaintiff to move for default judgment on day 22. After that, it will be very difficult for you to get the judgment reopened.
If you believe that a lawsuit is not properly presented in federal court, you are best served to file an appropriate motion before attempting to answer the Complaint.
What happens if I don’t answer a lawsuit in time?
Failing to answer or otherwise respond to a lawsuit in Pennsylvania (or anywhere, for that matter) is a big mistake. The clerk of the court will enter judgment against you and will award the Plaintiff the amount they asked for in the Complaint, even if that amount makes no sense under the facts and the law! This is called a “default judgment.”
So, if someone sues you for $1,000,000 because they say you insulted them, if you don’t answer, the Court will assume you have no objection to being in debt to this person for $1,000,000. They can seek to collect this judgment against you in a variety of ways. It’s safe to assume you won’t want that.
If you’ve already had judgment entered against you, you can seek to have the judgment “opened” or “stricken.” Under state law, if you have failed to file in a timely manner and received a default judgment against you, you have another 10 days from the entry of default to move for the judgment to be opened as a matter of right.
After that, it is still possible to get it open, but it is much harder. In federal court, it is difficult to get a judgment reopened.
Conclusion: Don’t delay in seeking legal counsel
In all instances, it’s best not to wait at all. Doing nothing about a complaint is the worst possible thing you can do. A good attorney will want time to research your claim and gather documents that are relevant, so it’s important that you move quickly.
At the Cornerstone Law Firm, we defend individuals and companies in lawsuits on a frequent basis. If you’ve been served with a lawsuit in state or federal court in Pennsylvania, we welcome you to call us to discuss your rights.