There are many options open to business owners other than litigation. The best option depends on an individual’s specific needs and goals. Small claims court, alternative dispute resolution, and class actions may all be appropriate actions depending on the situation. In addition, business owners may become defendants in a class action or small claims action. It is important for business owners to understand the legal principles involved in these possibilities.
The process of litigation includes many steps. These procedural steps are fairly uniform, and controlled by state as well as federal regulations. Whether or not the case goes to trial, the process still involves a large amount of time and work. If you are considering litigation, or are faced with litigation, an attorney can advise you about your jurisdiction and possible legal options.
It is also possible to pursue claims through a more informal small claims court. Small claims courts generally deal with nuisance claims or those involving a small amount of money. Jurisdictions differ in the requirements for a case to enter small claims court. This is generally the first place to pursue smaller damages.
The steps that generally make up a litigation include:
Pleadings. The pleading is an initial filing which describes the claims and defenses of the parties in a suit. The plaintiff files a complaint, which asserts the claims against the defendant. The defendant files an answer, which may contain defenses or counter-claims. It is also possible to file a third-party action at this time. Pleadings must be served on all involved parties. The defendant can choose to seek dismissal of the claim in their answer.
Motions. Pre-trial motions can be used for several purposes. They can request the dismissal of an action, narrow or exclude issues under litigation, or resolve actions legally. Motions may be considered by the presiding judge or in some cases by a hearing officer or referee. Cases can succeed or fail on the merits of these motions before the court trial begins.
Discovery process. Discovery is part of the pretrial proceedings. The discovery process allows attorneys the opportunity to research and investigate claims by the opposing party. Facts discovered during this process may be presented to the court at the trial or through motions. Sometimes, this process may resolve a claim without a trial and lead to settlement discussions.
Pretrial conferences. The pretrial conferences establish the ground rules of the case and allow the attorneys to prepare any witnesses and discuss issues with opposing attorneys.
Trial. Trials may be presided over by a judge, a jury, an arbitrator, or a hearing officer. Both parties are given an opportunity to present evidence, examine and cross-examine witnesses, and make opening and closing arguments. As we have seen, though, the trial is a small part of the overall litigation process. The trial can occur months or years after the initial pleadings are filed.
Judgment. The court renders judgment at the end of a trial, whether presided over by a judge, jury, or other officer of the court. The judgment can result in damages or a court order requiring a party to take specific actions. Most business litigation seeks monetary damages; often, the judgment is used as a lien against assets or property of the unsuccessful party until resolved.
Appeals. Generally, either party can appeal the court’s judgment. An appeal can be based on an assertion of error by the court, or a petition for a de novo review. A de novo petition asks the appellate court to review the case without referring to the earlier judgment, on the basis that the law was incorrectly or inappropriately interpreted or applied.
Appealing Business Litigation
In an appeal, a higher court reviews a trial court decision. In order to consider an appeal, a higher court must conclude that there was a legal or procedural error leading up to the earlier decision. In civil cases (including business litigation), this process may be initiated by a motion or at the end of a trial. The appeals court will examine the lower court’s decision, and then decide whether to sustain, modify, or reverse that decision. While trial courts consider the facts and apply law, appellate courts generally only review legal questions. The review of a case on appeal depends on the presentation of questions about legal interpretation, application of the law, and procedural matters. Factual disputes are generally not considered on appeal.
Timing and ability differ between states, and between state and federal courts. Some state courts allow appeal of issues before the end of a trial. In most states, a decision can only be appealed once. In any appeal, it is vital to consult an attorney with experience in appellate law.
The number and type of appellate courts also differs between states. Often, population and the volume of business determine the number and level of appellate courts in a jurisdiction. While some states have only three levels of courts (trial, appellate, and supreme or superior), others have five or six. Some states also maintain specialized appellate courts for specific issues such as taxes.
The federal legal system has a different appellate method. The lowest level of federal court is the district court, which considers factual issues as well as law. The eleven circuit courts deal only with legal questions and generally only review district court decisions. The highest federal appellate court is the Supreme Court, which has discretionary power to choose which appeals it will hear.
It is also possible for businesses to pursue legal questions before an administrative agency such as the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Courts do not usually review decisions made by administrative agencies, under the assumption that those agencies have an expertise in the matter under consideration. However, the courts do reserve the power to examine these decisions.
The appeals process is complicated and its rules and procedures vary between states and situations. A business lawyer with experience in appellate law can inform you of your options and serve as a vital source of counsel and information.