Business Litigation: What To Do With A Summons and Complaint

All business litigation begins with a summons and complaint. Typically prepared by an attorney, the summons and complaint are filed with the court and served on the defendants. Every business should have a process it follows when it receives a lawsuit to ensure that the complaint is handled in a timely way and the supporting documents are located and secured. The steps set forth below also insure that you are using your trial attorney in the most efficient and cost-effective manner.

What is a Summons? A summons is just that—a notice from the court summoning you to court. It will set forth the basic information—what court is involved (e.g., Los Angeles Superior Court), the name of the case (the parties suing each other), a direction to file a written response with the court within thirty days, a warning that if no response is filed a default judgment will be entered, and an admonition to consult an attorney. See, California Code of Civil Procedure, section 412.20.

What is a Complaint? The complaint is where the plaintiff sets forth the legal causes of action against the defendants. Causes of action are the legal claims that the plaintiff is asserting, such as breach of contract, fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, quiet title, partition or numerous others. The complaint must set forth the required elements of each cause of action. The complaint does not necessarily set forth all of the facts but will often explain enough to put the defendants on “notice” of the claims against them.

If you are a defendant who has been served with a summons and complaint, these are the steps to take.

1. Write down what day you were served. This is a seemingly small item but it is important for determining when your response is due. A response is due within thirty days. A variety of responses are possible. The most common is an Answer, which sets forth general or specific denials of the claims. However, it also possible to challenge the court’s jurisdiction (a Motion to Quash for lack of jurisdiction), to challenge the service of the complaint (also a Motion to Quash) or to challenge the complaint as not setting forth a viable cause of action (a Demurrer).

2. Hire an attorney. Get an attorney involved as soon as possible. Do not wait until the thirty days has run or is about to run. Get an attorney that has experience in your industry or business. Many attorneys will gladly take your business but do not necessarily have experience in your field. Ask if your business attorney has trial experience and has handled similar business cases. A corporation may not represent itself in California. It must be represented by an attorney. Once you retain the attorney, the attorney needs time to analyze the case and come up with a viable strategy.

3. Collect all of your documents and emails. Gather together all of the documents relating to the lawsuit. In a typical business litigation dispute, such as a breach of contract lawsuit, you will need to get together the contract, any invoices and payment records and all correspondence relating to the relationship. You must also include all documents that reside on the company’s servers and computers, including emails and calendars. Get this information to the attorney as quickly as possible. An attorney’s analysis of your lawsuit is only as good as the information he or she is provided.

Like the saying about the certainty of death and taxes, companies that do business in Los Angeles can expect to be sued at least once (and some many times). When the company receives the summons and complaint, following these three steps will make the initial stages of the lawsuit proceed smoothly.

Laine T. Wagenseller is a business litigation attorney in Los Angeles. Wagenseller Law Firm specializes in business and real estate litigation for corporations, partnerships and individuals. For more articles on business litigation subjects, including breach of contract and corporate litigation, please visit To contact Mr. Wagenseller, call him at (213) 286-0371 or

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