February 12, 2015
Many people will never be party to a lawsuit that goes to trial. For those that do, the first time may be the only time. Being a party to a Virginia circuit court civil case requires significant time, focus and resources for what may be several months or longer. What should a party expect from the beginning of a Virginia circuit court case? Because of the commitment required, parties to a lawsuit should familiarize themselves with the basics. This article is the first installment in a series providing a basic overview of Virginia circuit court civil cases. While the circumstances and details of each case are unique, the rules of court provide a basic outline of what to expect.
Pre-Lawsuit Negotiations: Before a lawsuit is filed, the parties and their attorneys usually communicate in efforts to achieve desired results without the necessity of a lawsuit. They exchange emails, demand letters, settlement offers and other correspondence articulating their interests, position and requirements. Why engage in this process if there already are grounds for a lawsuit? In the facts of many cases, there is a reasonable likelihood that the case can be settled without the necessity of filing suit. Not every case that ought to settle in fact resolves without filing suit. However, once suit is filed, the parties will be required to conduct the case in addition to engaging in any desired settlement negotiations. Often it is worthwhile to first see if things can be negotiated.
Filing the Complaint: If settlement negotiations don’t work, a party’s first step towards obtaining a judgment may be to file a complaint at the circuit court clerk’s office. In real estate and construction cases, this is usually done at the courthouse for the city or county where the property is located. Most real estate or construction cases are brought in Circuit Court. However, if the amount in controversy is $25,000.00 or less, the case will probably be brought in General District Court. Alternatively, some cases are brought in federal court.
To begin the case properly, the plaintiff’s best interests are served by investigating and analyzing the case with the lawyer. The complaint should include the proper parties with their correct names. The claims (e.g., breach of contract, breach of warranty, fraud, etc.) should be carefully considered and supported by sufficient factual allegations. The remedies (e.g., money judgment, declaration of rights, etc.) requested to the Court should be clear and supported by the claims. The parties defending the lawsuit can be expected to attack the complaint in whatever way they can. Making the complaint as strong as reasonably possible positions the plaintiff to have a greater likelihood of obtaining a favorable result in court or settlement. The plaintiff normally bears the burden of proof for the claims in the complaint. Parties should avoid simply putting some allegations together that merely forces the other side to respond. Time and focus spent on the complaint may prevent more time unnecessarily being spent strengthening or disputing over a claim later.
Service of Process: A lawsuit cannot proceed unless the defendants are formally put on notice. Normally this consists of having a sheriff’s deputy or private process server going out to each defendant’s house to serve them. There are several alternatives to direct hand delivery of the complaint on the defendant that may apply. Usually it takes a few days for the court personnel to process the paperwork. If the lawyers for the parties are already introduced, often the attorney will provide the defendants with a courtesy copy of the complaint before it is served.
Defendant’s Initial Response: Once the defendant is served, he normally has 21 days in which to respond. Failure to respond in a timely manner or obtain an extension can result in that party falling into default. Falling into default can result in significant waiver of rights to defend the lawsuit and possible entry of default judgment. Usually, defendants respond initially to complaints by filing a “demurrer” or some other motion designed to have the lawsuit dismissed. In the Virginia circuit courts, defendants often make substantial efforts in these early demurrers and motions. Unlike some other states, the defendant’s ability to get a case dismissed on a later pre-trial motion is limited in Virginia state courts. Since the plaintiff bears the burden of proving the allegations and generally upholding the legitimacy of the lawsuit, there are many possible grounds for a defendant to seek dismissal. What is a demurrer? At this stage the defendant usually cannot successfully challenge the truth of the facts asserted in the complaint. Instead, the demurrers typically argue that, for whatever reason, the complaint is not legally sufficient and must be revised or abandoned. For example, a plaintiff may allege various forms of wrongdoing and damages suffered. However, if a claim fails to properly articulate a causal connection between the wrongful conduct and the damages suffered, the defendant will probably argue that it is not legally sufficient. The demurrer or motion to dismiss may require a court hearing where the attorneys will argue before a judge over the sufficiency of the lawsuit. The parties themselves are usually not required to attend these hearings but may do so if they wish.
Defendant’s Answer and Affirmative Defenses: At the end of this initial motions practice phase, the defendants are usually left with claims that have survived and must be responded to directly. This is done by filing an answer containing numbered paragraphs responding directly to those in the complaint as admitted, denied or whatever other response is appropriate. In the same document, the defendants will also identify their affirmative defenses. For example, the defendant may assert fraud, that the plaintiff waived her rights by taking too long to file suit, or other defenses. Some affirmative defenses must be put with the answer to avoid being waived.
Additional Claims: A defendant may have a claim against the plaintiff, another defendant or a third party that may be related to the facts of the case. This initial response phase is the normal time for such claims to be asserted. A counter-claim, cross-claim or claim against a third party is in many respects treated like a separate lawsuit that will go to trial with the initial lawsuit because of the common factual issues.
Scheduling Orders and Trial Dates: Around this time the court will set the trial date. A party should provide her attorney with dates to avoid (vacation, travel, etc.) for trial. Additionally the attorney and client will discuss whether a trial by or without a jury should be requested. When the attorneys set the case for trial, the court may enter a scheduling order setting certain deadlines for the progress of the case. Once the trial date is set, the attorneys, parties and witnesses should reserve the trial dates on their calendars.
There is a lot of activity that goes on in a Virginia circuit court case before the parties give their own personal testimony. In the next installment in this series, I will provide an overview for the discovery process, where each side requests testimony, property viewings, documents and information from their opponents and third parties. The facts and circumstances of each case are different and may require additional procedures or other variations from the outline provided above. If you have a real estate or construction claim against another party, discuss the matter with a qualified attorney to avoid unnecessary waiver of any rights. If you have been made a defendant to a lawsuit, consult with an attorney admitted to practice before the court where the suit is filed to avoid falling into default or other waiver of rights.
May 2, 2014
Earlier this week, the National Basketball Association imposed a lifetime ban on Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. Adventuress Vanessa Stiviano recorded racist and demeaning statements made by Sterling about Basketball Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson. The recordings subsequently leaked to the public.
In 1991, I watched the first NBA Finals for the first time. Magic Johnson led the Lakers against Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. The 1991 Finals made me a basketball fan. Magic was one of my favorite professional athletes. The news about Don Sterling is offensive and bizarre. Why is this scandal happening?
On March 7, 2013, Sterling’s wife, Rochelle, filed a lawsuit against Ms. Stiviano. The lawsuit alleges that Stiviano seduced Don for money. According to Rochelle, Stiviano used marital funds to purchase a $1.8 Million dollar duplex home in Los Angeles in December 2013. Rochelle seeks a court order reforming the deed to identify herself and her husband as the proper owners.
The LA Times reports that Mr. Sterling told Clippers President Andy Roeser that Stiviano said that she would “get even” with Rochelle for filing the lawsuit. Apr. 26, 2014, Bettina Boxall, Sterling’s Wife Describes Alleged Mistress as Gold Digger in Lawsuit. I wonder if Stiviano has additional embarrassing Sterling recordings that she has not yet leaked. There is a controversy over whether the recordings were consensual. How are these leaked recordings related to the lawsuit?
Rochelle alleges that Donald Sterling provided the money for Stiviano to purchase the duplex, “with the understanding that the Property would be owned by [Donald and Rochelle Sterling] and title would vest in the name of [Rochelle] and D. Sterling.” Curiously, Donald is not a Plaintiff or Defendant to this lawsuit where the spouse sues paramour. Rochelle alleges that, “D. Sterling either gifted said Property to Stiviano, without the knowledge, consent or authorization of Plaintiff, or, in the alternative, Stiviano fraudulently and wrongfully caused title to the Property to vest in her name.”
- The transfers made from Donald to Stiviano were gifts.
- Rochelle and Donald are not in divorce proceedings.
- Rochelle does not allege that any of the transfers were thefts.
- Mr. Sterling is an, “on the top of his game infamous real estate mogul.”
- Rochelle knew of Donald’s reputation for “gold plated dalliances” in general and his relationship with Stiviano in particular.
Don Sterling’s health history is an issue. ESPN reports today that Mr. Sterling has prostrate cancer.
I try to avoid predicting the outcome of pending motions, especially those in California, where I do not practice law. Can a California Judge base a ruling on new facts introduced by a defendant on demurrer?
Rochelle alleges that she and Donald are the real owners of the duplex because either:
- Donald and his wife were supposed to be the grantees on the deed, and somehow the name got switched to Stiviano; or
- Donald secreted the funds to Stiviano out of the family estate without Rochelle’s knowledge.
These allegations seem contradictory. In the first case, there was an intention for the paramour to be the nominal purchaser for the benefit of the husband and wife. Did Rochelle condone Don’s relationship with Stiviano? The alternative alleges waste of marital assets, but outside a divorce proceeding. The “constructive trust” remedy sought by Rochelle is a flexible one. However, a spouse usually cannot invalidate transfers to a “other woman” absent theft, fraud, incapacity or other conduct that voids the intent of the philanderer.
This demurrer is set for hearing on July 8, 2014. Many things could happen before then. Don Sterling’s health is an issue. The media will shift their focus to other sports after the NBA Finals and Draft wrap up in late June. Will the NBA successfully force Sterling to sell the Clippers? His lawyers will research the admissibility of the Stiviano tapes thoroughly. Regardless as to how deep they go into the playoffs, the Clippers will have an eventful off-season.