Explaining PA Lawsuits Using Plain Language (Part I) – Key Legal Terms

April 13, 2018
Brandon S. Harter

One of the most important things I do as a Litigation attorney is explain to my clients what has happened, and is likely to happen, in their lawsuit. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to do that using abstract legal jargon as though everyone uses these terms as often as I do. So, rather than leaving you searching Google to find out what your lawyer is talking about, let’s start by going through some common legal terms in Pennsylvania lawsuits:

Who is Involved?

  • Plaintiff – The party or parties who starts a lawsuit against a
  • Defendant – The party or parties being sued by a Plaintiff. Even if both parties have claims against each other, the Plaintiff is the one who files first regardless of the size of their respective claims.
  • Litigation –The process of taking part in a lawsuit. “Litigators” are lawyers who practice Litigation.
  • MDJ – Short for Magisterial District Judge. A MDJ presides over “small claims” court in Pennsylvania for disputes worth less than $12,000 or disputes about issues like landlord/tenant claims.
  • Court of Common Pleas – The Pennsylvania court level where elected judges preside over claims. It is the step above and MDJ and can hear almost any type of claim.

What is Being Claimed?

  • Complaint – The document a Plaintiff files that usually starts a lawsuit. Its numbered paragraphs lay out the facts of the case, legal theories supporting their position, and what they want the Court to give them.
  • Answer – The document a Defendant files in response to a Complaint. It responds to each of the numbered paragraphs in a Complaint either by admitting that what the Plaintiff argues is true or denying it and explaining why it’s denied.
  • Reply – This document is how a Plaintiff responds to any new claims made by a Defendant in an Answer.
  • Default Judgment – If a Plaintiff or Defendant doesn’t respond to a Complaint or Answer in time, the other party can ask the Court to win automatically. The other party has given up by not defending themselves. (NOTE: if you get a “Notice of Default” warning you that a default may be entered, you need to seek legal counsel at once).
  • Motion – A formal request for the Court to do something. It is for tasks more complex and less administrative than those of a Praecipe. Among the most common are requests for the Court to rule in one party’s favor (either dismissing a claim or awarding a Judgment).
  • Praecipe – Pennsylvania’s mini-motion. It is a request for the Court to do something more administrative. For example, notifying the Court you have hired a new lawyer to represent you.
  • Brief – A writing submitted to the court by a lawyer, usually in connection with a Motion, that argues their client’s legal theory. It’s the lawyer version of an essay or paper.

What Evidence is There?

  • Interrogatories – Written questions from one party to the other, often used as a tool to gather information in a lawsuit. It’s like a Deposition, but you respond to the questions in writing rather than sitting in a room and testifying under oath.
  • Request for Production of Documents – A request asking a party to provide copies documents related to a case. This can include not just paper records, but also emails, text messages or other digital materials.
  • Deposition – A meeting where a lawyer asks someone (aka the witness) questions under oath. It is a tool used to learn what the person knows that is, or could be, important. In addition to the person (or party) who is answering the questions, the lawyers and a court reporter (who makes a record of everything being said) are also present.
  • Subpoena – A document requiring a third-party either to provide documents (like a Request for Production of Documents, but to a non-party) or to attend something (like a Deposition or Trial). A Subpoena is used only for someone who is not a party to the lawsuit.

How Do We Decide a Winner?

  • Trial – The ultimate end game of a lawsuit where a judge or jury decides who wins. This is the big sister of a Hearing.
  • Hearing – A meeting in front of a judge, usually limited to one or a few topics. It is a small-scale “trial” on just those topics. But it can also involve witnesses testifying and evidence being submitted.
  • Judgment – A written instruction from the Court that someone is entitled to something. Generally, judgments specify the money one side owes, but they can also be to award possession of something.
  • Settlement – When the parties to a lawsuit make a deal to end the lawsuit without going all the way to a Trial.

Check out the rest of our series “Explaining PA Lawsuits Using Plain Language”:

Brandon Harter is a litigator and technology guru at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from William & Mary Law School and advises clients on issues of  Civil Litigation & Dispute ResolutionMunicipal Law, and Information Technology & Internet Law.