A typical lawsuit proceeds through five basic phases:
- Summary Judgment
Each case is unique, though. These are just the five basic phases.
At the pleadings phase, a complaint containing all the plaintiff’s claims is filed and then the defendant responds by filing an answer stating any defenses. In some circumstances, a case may be dismissed at this phase or judgment may be entered in favor of either party if appropriate.
If the case proceeds, the next phase is discovery, where each party can gather facts and information needed to prove the various points of the case. The basic discovery tools include: 1) written interrogatories, or questions, which can be sent to the opposing party; 2) oral depositions, or questioning of a potential witness; 3) depositions by written questions; 4) requests for admission; 5) requests for production of documents or entry upon land; and 6) physical and mental examination of a party. Different methods of discovery are better suited for different purposes, but a party may use as many or as few of the discovery methods as needed. Discovery often proves time consuming and expensive; however, so duplicative or unduly burdensome discovery requests are impermissible. Many cases settle after discovery because a party is unable to gather sufficient evidence to prove their claims.
3. Summary Judgment
During this phase, the judge is asked to evaluate the case by looking at the pleadings as well as briefs written by each party summarizing the facts of the case and making legal arguments as to why that party should win. The judge also relies on information gathered by the parties during discovery as each party designates relevant evidence in the summary judgment briefs. This phase is not mandatory, but it occurs in most employment cases. If all claims are dismissed at the summary judgment phase, the case will not proceed to trial. An appeal may be taken if the judge grants summary judgment on all claims by one of the parties.
If a case does proceed to the trial phase, meaning it has not been dismissed, has not been settled by the parties, and has not been decided by the judge, a trial will be held. A case may be tried in front of a judge only or, if appropriate, in front of a jury. Trials are also time consuming and financially costly.
Finally, if a judge grants summary judgment on all claims or after a verdict is entered at trial, a party may be able to appeal. The appellate process varies depending on whether the lawsuit was filed in state or federal court. In general, however, an appeal is appropriate when there is substantial evidence showing that an error occurred by the judge or during the trial which changed the outcome of the case.