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Stages of Litigation

Every case is different but the civil litigation process is largely the same and typically involves the following stage:

Filing and Service of the Complaint

The complaint is a short but specific statement of the material facts and the legal claims. In federal court, the suit is initiated when the complaint is filed. In Minnesota state court the suit is initiated upon service of the complaint on the defendant.

Responding to the Complaint

The defendant has two choices, answer the complaint or bring a motion to dismiss. If he elects to answer, the rules require that he admit or deny each of the factual allegations in the complaint and state his legal defenses. Further, the defendant  may bring a counterclaim against the plaintiff alleging that the plaintiff violated the law. With respect to a counterclaim, the defendant is in the position of a plaintiff.

In lieu of an answer, a defendant may elect to file a motion to dismiss claiming that there is no valid claim even if all the facts alleged in the complaint are true. In ruling on a motion to dismiss, the court must view the alleged facts, and all reasonable inferences, in favor of the plaintiff. The court is not supposed to "weigh" the evidence or determine the credibility of the parties.


There are several different types of discovery.  Interrogatories are specific questions directed to the other side. Requests for admissions are yes/no questions. A deposition is the questioning of a witness under oath.  And one can also seek documents and other relevant information through a request for production. Parties often object to discovery requests, and , if the matter cannot be resolved informally, the party seeking the discovery must file a motion with the court to compel the discovery.

The above discovery techniques are used between the parties to the lawsuit. One can also subpoena third parties to provide relevant documents or testimony.

Pre-Trial Motions

Motions are filed when a party wants the court to grant some relief. They can concern a host of legal issues. To give some examples, one can move to have the case dismissed for lack of jurisdiction or because the complaint fails to state a viable offense. One can move to compel discovery or for a protective order precluding the disclosure of discovery to certain persons. Other common motions are motions for sanctions, alleging that the attorney on the other side violated some rule or professional obligation, and motions to preclude the introduction of certain evidence at trial. 


Trials are held before a judge and a jury or just a judge (called a bench trial). In the former case the judge decides legal questions and the jury decides factual questions. In a bench trial the judge decides both the law and the facts. Trials generally proceed as follows: 1) Jury selection, 2) Opening statements, which is a nonargumentative statement of what each party believes the evidence will show, 3) Plaintiff presents evidence through witnesses, and the defendant has the right to cross examine the witnesses, 4) Defendant presents evidence and the plaintiff has the right to cross examine, 5) Closing arguments, 6) Jury instructions, and 7) Jury deliberation and decision.


Typically appeals must wait until the entire case is concluded, though in limited circumstances one can appeal a pre-trial decision. Either side (or both) can appeal a final judgement. In Minnesota one has an automatic right to appeal to the court of appeals.  The party losing before that court can file a petition seeking review by the Minnesota Supreme Court. That court generally has discretion to hear a case or not hear a case.

The system is similar in Federal Court.  An adverse decision by the Minnesota Federal District Court can be appealed to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. The losing party on appeal can petition the U.S. Supreme Court for review. 

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