Filing a Lawsuit? – What to Expect? Steps & Timeline

While frustrating, the reality these days is it may take years from the time a lawsuit is filed until judgment day, and clients – understandably so – are often left asking:

  • What’s taking so long to file a lawsuit in California?
  • How long does a civil lawsuit take?
  • How Much Time Do Lawsuits Take?
  • How long does it take to file a lawsuit in California?

In this article, we will explain what happens right after you file your lawsuit in California, timeline for Suing in California, Filing a New Civil Lawsuit. discuss the major benchmarks in most litigations, and provide a general “file to trial” timeline, to help set expectations.


⚖️ STEP 1: “Suing” the Defendant – Filing and Serving Your Complaint 

To “sue” a person or company (called a “defendant”), the person or company suing (the “plaintiff”)  prepares and files with the court a Complaint, which is a document setting forth the facts and legal claims alleged against the defendant. Once the complaint is filed, the clerk of court must then execute and issue a “Civil Summons” for each defendant named in the action. Typically, this takes about 2-5 days.

Once the clerk issues the Civil Summons, the plaintiff must then serve a copy of the file-stamped Complaint and Civil Summons (along with any other court-specific orders or addendums) on the defendant in person. While it may sound easy, defendants are often difficult to locate, their addresses are unknown, or the process servers simply cannot get in touch with them. As such, serving an individual can often take a couple of weeks. By contrast, if the defendant is a corporation and is being served through a registered agent, service is often completed within a day or two. Normally, the court will give a plaintiff sufficient time (in federal court, 120 days) to serve a defendant, and will allow the plaintiff additional time on a showing of good cause.

🔨STEP 2: Defendant’s Response to the Lawsuit

Once served, the defendant must then respond to your lawsuit by filing a formal response with the court. This must be done within 21 days of service, if the lawsuit was filed in federal court, and within 30 days of service, if the lawsuit was filed in state court. It is very common for defendants to request an extension of time to respond, and such extensions are typically granted, including because even absent a plaintiff’s consent, courts rarely deny a motion for extension.

In California, the most common responses are an Answer (e.g. defendant “agrees to disagree” on the facts, and asserts standard defenses), a Demurrer / Motion to Dismiss (e.g. defendant argues that the Complaint fails to state a claim, as a matter of law), a Motion to Strike (e.g. defendant argues that certain content in the Complaint should be stricken as improper), or a Special Motion to Strike / anti-SLAPP Motion (e.g. defendant argues that he is being sued for protected conduct, and plaintiff’s complaint is frivolous). If an Answer is filed, the parties move on to the discovery phase of the lawsuit (see Step 4). If a Motion/Demurrer is filed, the plaintiff must formally oppose it (see Step 3), and the court will decide the issues.

⚖️ STEP 3: Opposing Defendant’s Motion 

If the defendant files a motion to dismiss, he or she is challenging the legal or factual validity of the lawsuit. A plaintiff will have some period of time – typically, between 1 and 3 weeks – to file a response, called an Opposition, and the defendant will then have the opportunity to file a short Reply. This “set of 3” concludes the briefing allowed for a given motion.

After the briefing is submitted, the court will read the briefs, and may also hold a hearing, at which the judge may ask questions of the attorneys, who appear to argue the merits of their briefs. Not all courts require hearings; some judges will decide the issues “on the papers,” without oral argument.

If the court grants defendant’s motion to dismiss and dismisses the case “with prejudice,” this means your case is concluded forever. By contrast, if a motion to dismiss is granted “without prejudice,” the court will give you a limited time frame to file an amended complaint, to try and address the legal deficiencies. Keep in mind, courts respond to motions to dismiss within various timeframes – some judges will respond in a matter of days, and while rare, some judges can take more than a month, depending on the complexity of the case and the court’s own bandwidth.

🔨 STEP 4: Discovery – Gathering Evidence For Your Case

Once initial motion practice is complete, the next step is to move into discovery, which is the phase of the case where the parties gather evidence to support their claims or defenses. Numerous tools are available for gathering evidence, the most common being written questions to the other side, depositions, and subpoenas to third parties for documents or testimony. Discovery is the longest phase of the litigation.

Discovery disputes are common as parties often grapple with what information is discoverable (e.g., is it relevant, privileged, etc.). This can lead to negotiations and other delays in the case. While some situations are worked out amongst the lawyers or parties, other discovery disputes can require court intervention in the form of a motion to compel responses, which can cause further delay – including because many courts require parties to engage in substantial efforts to informally resolve the dispute, prior to being allowed to file a motion.

The period of discovery is a jurisdictionally-specific and case-specific inquiry. Different courts move at different speeds, some courts are more lenient than others, and the complexity of the case and type of evidence being gathered also factor into the how long discovery will take. For a case of moderate complexity, discovery generally takes 6-10 months – but again, this is a very rough estimate. Often, the court will require the parties to agree on a schedule for how long the discovery process will take, but initial estimates can be extended for good cause, to ensure neither party is prejudiced or deprived of crucial evidence.

⚖️ STEP 5: Summary Judgment – Deciding the Case Without a Trial

The role of the jury is to act as the finder of fact, not the judge of the law. If, after discovery, no genuine factual disputes exist, there is no point of having a jury trial; rather, the case can be decided by the judge, purely based on the law. The mechanism is to file a motion for summary judgment, which means the parties ask the court to apply the law to the facts and determine whether the defendant is liable.

Because a summary judgment motion is potentially dispositive of the case, the rules give the parties a longer period of time to oppose and reply to the motions. From the time a summary judgment motion is filed to the time the court rules can take anywhere between 6-10 weeks, and sometimes even longer, but again, be mindful of differences in jurisdictional rules.

🔨 STEP 6:  Pre-Trial

If the court denies summary judgment in whole or in part, meaning there are issues left for trial, the parties will then generally be required to prepare a joint pre-trial report and attend a pre-trial conference. Essentially, the purpose of the pre-trial conference is to assist in setting ground rules for trial. Lawyers will meet with the judge to finalize crucial parameters for the trial, such as who may be potential witnesses, and what evidence is or is not admissible. From the time summary judgment is denied until the time all pre-trial issues are resolved can take anywhere from 4-12 weeks, but again, this is a general timeframe. Trials that involve only the amount of damages at issue typically fall on the lower end of the timeframe, as they involve substantially fewer issues to resolve.

⚖️ STEP 7:  Trial – Your Day In Court

Since the majority of ground rules and appropriate trial evidence is vetted and decided on during the pre-trial conference, the parties and their counsel typically have a good idea of what to expect at trial. Unlike in TV shows, it is rare for a “shocking witness” to appear and testify, or for “new evidence” to pop up and obliterate the other side’s case.  In reality, business lawyers for both parties have a very good idea of who is going to testify, what the witnesses will testify about, and what evidence will and will not be introduced. Of course, there are always surprises – for example, witnesses can testify about things they have never previously mentioned, or an important piece of evidence could be excluded for lack of foundation. Nevertheless, trials generally take about as long as the parties anticipate, notwithstanding a relatively small margin of error. The three biggest factors in determining how long a trial will take are the number of issues to be determined, the complexity of those issues, and how many trial witnesses are anticipated.

As clear from this short discussion, litigation is time consuming and requires compliance with detailed rules. If you are unable to resolve a legal matter without filing a lawsuit, contact Dhillon Law Group’s experienced civil lawyers in California to discuss your legal options.

Michael Yoder is an associate who handles constitutional law matters at Dhillon Law Group Inc.

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