Pleading

As explained in the topic Litigation, “pleading” is one of the phases of the litigation process.

The Complaint or Petition initiates a lawsuit

The initial pleading usually is referred to as a “complaint” (most states, including California) or “petition” (a minority of states, such as Texas). The initial pleading names the parties (i.e., the plaintiffs and defendants), states essential facts, and requests judgment. “Essential facts” include allegations supporting the conclusion that (a) the court has jurisdiction over the defendants, (b) the venue (i.e., the court district) is proper for the particular case or these specific defendants, and (c) something happened that requires a judgment from the court. 

Example: California’s basic pleading rules

Here are the pleading rules in California:

  • A complaint or cross-complaint shall contain both of the following: (1) a statement of the facts constituting the cause of action in ordinary and concise language; (2) a demand for judgment in an amount if the demand is for money or damages. If the action is brought to recover actual or punitive damages in a personal injury or wrongful death case, the amount shall not be stated. Code of Civil Procedure Section 425.10.
  • A material allegation in a pleading is one essential to the claim or defense and which could not be stricken from the pleading without leaving it insufficient as to that claim or defense. Code of Civil Procedure Section 431.10(a).
  • The complaint is ordinarily sufficient if it alleges ultimate rather than evidentiary facts. It has been consistently held a plaintiff is required only to set forth the essential facts of his or her case with reasonable precision and with particularity sufficient to acquaint a defendant with the nature, source, and extent of the cause of action. Moreover, a plaintiff may allege on information and belief any matters which are not within his or her personal knowledge, if he or she has information leading him or her to believe the allegations are true. Doe v. City of Los Angeles (2007) 42 Cal.4th 531, 550.
  • Some causes of action, such as fraud, must be alleged specifically. See: e.g., Committee on Children’s Television, Inc. v. General Foods Corp. (1983) 35 Cal.3d 197, 216. 
  • The relief to the plaintiff, if there is no answer, cannot exceed that demanded in the complaint, or in a statement of damages pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure Sections 425.11 or 425.115; but in any other case, the court may grant the plaintiff any relief consistent with the case made by the complaint and embraced by the issue. The court may impose liability, regardless of whether the theory upon which liability is sought to be imposed involves legal or equitable principles. Code of Civil Procedure Section 580(a).

Challenges to the Complaint or Petition

The motions that challenge the sufficiency of a pleading generally include the demurrer, motion to strike, and motion for judgment on the pleadings.

  • A demurrer says essentially that even if everything in the pleading could be proved, the dispute still could not be resolved against the defendant.
  • A motion to strike says that the pleading contains words and charges that are not allowed to be there.
  • A motion for judgment on the pleadings says that the pleading itself constitutes an admission that the dispute must be resolved in favor of the defendant.

After hearing any such motion, the court usually grants the pleader one or more opportunities to submit a sufficient pleading. The motion can be renewed for each successive pleading. This phase ends when the tribunal declares that the pleading is sufficient or that no further opportunities will be given to submit an amended one. In the latter event, the entire dispute may be resolved in the defendant’s favor, or the dispute over the pleading itself may be resolved by an order which eliminates parts of the pleading. Generally, a pleading motion is likely to result in victory for the defendant only when the motion reveals to the tribunal that an essential element of the case is incapable of being proved.

Defendants are required to file an Answer

Each defendant must file an Answer to the Complaint or Petition. The Answer should deny allegations of the initial pleading that the defendant believes must be litigated, and also should include allegations that support affirmative defenses. An “affirmative defense” is a defense based on facts alleged by the defendant as opposed to those set forth by the plaintiff. An example of an affirmative defense is an allegation that a third party caused the accident described in the Complaint.

To learn more about the next phase in a case, see Discovery. If you are a plaintiff’s attorney and you need pleadings, see Dog Bite Litigation Forms for Plaintiffs’ Attorneys. There are pleadings on the Internet but they should be used only by attorneys who know how to adapt them and know which can be used at all. See, for example, Demurrer to Answer (California).