Immediate Considerations When You Are Served With A Summons In New York City

Practical insights from powerhouse attorney, author and speaker Bradley Bailyn.

A stranger approaches you, maybe on the street, or comes to your door. He says your name in the form of a question. You say that yes, that’s your name. He hands you some papers, maybe in an envelope, maybe just a handful of papers, and says to you something like:

“You’ve been served.”

He may even offer the advice of “Call your attorney.” (Good advice).

Your day has suddenly taken a turn for the worse, as you read the papers you have been handed. It’s a court “Summons”, maybe with a detailed document referred to as a “Complaint” or “Verified Complaint,” maybe just a paper called “Summons with Notice.” (You’ll find those words in the upper right hand corner of the first page of the papers you received).

Or perhaps you come home and your significant other or child hands you those papers saying something like, “Someone came to the door and gave me these for you.”

Or perhaps you come home, and taped to your door are the above types of papers.

No matter how you received them, you need to know what NOT to do, and what to do next.

First and foremost, if you are personally served, like in the first scenario, do NOT avoid taking the papers, do NOT verbally or (heaven forbid) physically assault the person serving you. Do not throw the papers in the trash. Those kind of actions can come back to haunt you.

Expect at first an emotional reaction as you read the papers. Someone or some business, is suing you. They want to get you into a courtroom if necessary, or at least they are looking for money from you (in most cases) either via a settlement or a judgment.

You are going to be angry, maybe nervous, maybe a little frightened. Expect it. Experience it for about fifteen minutes, then get smart and get going on the suggestions in this blog post.

First of all, if the papers were delivered in an envelope or some other type of covering, do not throw that out. Keep everything you were given. Write down the time and place and manner of your receipt of the papers, and then look at the upper left hand corner of the document entitled “Summons” and see in which court you are being sued. Write down a description of the person who served you, also.

All of the above actions may become of crucial importance in the proceedings that will follow. It can provide your attorney with the initial information he needs, and may even assist him in getting the case against you dismissed in certain instances.

A summons and/or a summons and complaint is not like a collection letter. It is a time sensitive document, that must be responded to in due form, and in the time mandated by law.

There are several courts in which you may have been sued.

If the amount is $5,000.00 or less, it is most likely you will be in small claims court, where if you are being individually sued, you can, should you so choose, represent yourself. You can only be sued in the small claims court in the county where you reside, if you are individually sued, or in the county where your business maintains an office, if you are being sued in a business capacity.

If you are a corporation or an LLC being sued in small claims court, you have no choice, you cannot represent yourself, you must get an attorney. The court will not allow you to do otherwise, and if you push the issue, you risk getting a default judgment against you; (more on that below).

But for the purposes of this post, let us assume you are being sued in your individual capacity, in other words as “John Jones.”

Let’s get back to the various courts. If the amount is $25,000.00 or under, and you are sued in a New York City court, you will be in the Civil Court of the City of New York. If it is in excess of that amount, you will be sued in the Supreme Court, (which is not to be confused with the Supreme Court of the United States, where you will never be sued; it is the highest appeals court in the country).

(If you are being sued in the District Courts of Nassau or Suffolk, the amount is up to $15,000.00 before you have to go to the Supreme Courts in those counties).

So, you have kept all of your papers, recorded the information required above, and you know where you are being sued. At the end of the documents you received, there will normally be a dollar amount that the person or business suing you, (the Plaintiff) requires.

Remember this: that amount is a number typed by a secretary according to a lawyer’s instructions. It does not necessarily mean the amount is correct, fair, just, or even within the realm of possibility. So don’t panic. The reality of the situation is that if you are being sued either in the Civil or District Court (not the small claims division) or the Supreme Court, you are NOT going to know the procedural and substantive law to adequately defend yourself.

Don’t even think of doing that, because if you do, the judge is not going to give you special treatment; he will treat you just as if you were a knowledgeable attorney. Not good for you.

Once you are served with court papers, you don’t want to delay you don’t want to hide your head in the sand, hoping that these proceedings will just go away. They won’t, and if you don’t properly and timely respond, you risk getting what is called a default judgment against you, which means plaintiff, (either on papers or in court) goes before the court and gets a judgment for the amount being sought, and afterwards, with following the proper post judgment procedures, can enforce that judgment against you; your income, your property.

You will need experienced legal representation. Yes, it is going to cost you something, but depending upon the amount you are being sued for, it may be well worth it. (You will have no choice legally if you are a corporation or an LLC being sued.)

Do not be penny wise and pound foolish by contacting the attorney for the plaintiff yourself, and “making a deal”. You will be at a distinct disadvantage with respect to your legal rights, and your wallet.

You want to hire an attorney that is experienced in litigation, court and trial work. Ideally, you want an attorney that is known to the judges and court personnel where you will find yourself as a civil defendant. (Defendant in this case is a technical term, and has nothing to do with being a defendant in a criminal case. Nobody is going to jail you for owing money in a civil proceeding, unless you wind up being found in contempt of a court order—something that you should rarely be exposed to.)

Thus at first you will be reactive, (anger, nervousness, fear). But being a smart defendant, you will quickly become proactive and contact an attorney as described above, to protect your legal rights, your peace of mind and your pocketbook.