An Overview to a Typical Civil Suit in South Dakota

Filing a typical civil suit in South Dakota can be confusing. We're here to help guide you. 

This overview is designed to help you understand what is happening in court and what you might need to do. If you are under the age of 18, a parent, guardian, or other person who is qualified under the law will be appointed and named in the lawsuit for you. For privacy reasons, only your initials will appear in the lawsuit and your personal information will be kept confidential under federal laws.

Note: The ACLU's legal services are provided at absolutely no charge. 

1. Step 1: Investigation

Q.Step 1: Investigation
A.

Lawyers are required to investigate the facts and law before beginning any lawsuit. This may include interviewing you and other witnesses and gathering documents. Lawyers will also research the law to make sure there is a good reason to sue.

Your responsibilities: Meet with your lawyer(s) and provide information, documents, or other evidence when requested.

2. Step 2: Demand Letter

Q.Step 2: Demand Letter
A.

It may make sense to try to reach an agreement with the other side without going to court. This typically begins with a “demand letter” summarizing the case and offering to negotiate. This step may be skipped if it would be a waste of time or would take too long.

3. Step 3: Complaint and Answer

Q.Step 3: Complaint and Answer
A.

The Complaint is the legal document that kicks off the lawsuit. It identifies the participants (“parties”) to the lawsuit and outlines the facts and law applicable to the case. After receiving the Complaint, the defendant must file and prepare an Answer to the Complaint outlining their response.

Your responsibilities: Review the Complaint for accuracy before it is filed.

4. Step 4: Pretrial

Q.Step 4: Pretrial
A.

If your situation requires emergency help from a court in order to prevent a permanent harm from happening, we can ask the court to issue an order to prevent the harm. An example is to ask for an order preventing a person from tearing down a building until the court can decide if it is a historic landmark that must be preserved. These orders (usually called “temporary restraining orders” or “preliminary injunctions”) are not easy to get. Requests for such orders can be decided by the court without witness testimony but sometimes involve a hearing that resembles a short trial.

Your responsibilities: Provide necessary documents to your lawyer(s), review court filings for accuracy, and, if your testimony is necessary, testify truthfully under oath if a hearing is held.

5. Step 5: Motion to Dismiss

Q.Step 5: Motion to Dismiss
A.

After the Complaint is filed, the defendant to a lawsuit may ask the court to dismiss all or part of the lawsuit. This is called a “motion to dismiss.” In essence, a motion to dismiss says to the court, “Even if you believe everything the plaintiff said in the Complaint, the defendant should win the case right now without going to trial.”

6. Step 6: Discovery

Q.Step 6: Discovery
A.

This is the longest stage of the legal process and the most work. In discovery, each party involved may use various legal tools for finding evidence, including written questions (called interrogatories) requiring written answers, requesting documents (called requests for production of documents), and taking depositions. Depositions are out-of-court questioning of witnesses who must appear at an agreed-upon time and location (usually a lawyer’s office) to be questioned under oath. The questions and answers are recorded by a court reporter. The witness is allowed to have an attorney present to object to certain questions.

During discovery, parties may ask for things not strictly related to the legal claims. Depending on the type of case, the other side could be allowed to gather information about your school records, social media accounts, text messages, emails and private correspondence, or diaries. Other witnesses – including friends, family, co-workers, or neighbors – could be asked about information relating to the lawsuit.

Of course, not everything about your life will be available to the other side. Some information is protected (“privileged”). For example, conversations between lawyer and client or priest and minister can be protected. It is forbidden to hide evidence during discovery, so your lawyer needs your help in finding all the information that’s asked for. If a party refuses to provide information, the court may impose a “sanction,” or punishment.

 

Your responsibilities: Tell your lawyer(s) about all the facts, produce documents or physical evidence, and prepare for and testify truthfully at your deposition if one is requested. Keep information about the lawsuit confidential and don’t share information with friends or family or post anything on social media.

7. Step 7: Motion for Summary Judgement

Q.Step 7: Motion for Summary Judgement
A.

A party who thinks they have enough evidence to resolve the case may file what’s called a “motion for summary judgment.” In essence, a motion for summary judgment says, “There is no disagreement about the facts of the case, so the court should decide the case now without going to trial.” The court can deny a motion for summary judgment if there is a disagreement about the facts or if the side making the motion does not have a legal basis to win.

Your responsibilities: Provide documents and information to your lawyer(s) when required and review court filings for accuracy.

8. Step 8: Settlement Negotiations

Q.Step 8: Settlement Negotiations
A.

At any stage of the process, the parties can negotiate about agreeing to end (or “settle”) the case. Many courts require that the parties at least try such negotiations before trial during a meeting called a “settlement conference” or “mediation.” These will have a judge or other neutral person try to broker an agreement, but they cannot force anyone to end the case.

Your responsibilities: Help your lawyer(s) formulate settlement offers and attend settlement conferences. If an agreement is reached, sign finalizing documents.

9. Step 9: Trial

Q.Step 9: Trial
A.

If the case is not resolved by a motion and has not settled, it will go to trial. Trial is a process by which a jury (or a judge, in some instances) will decide which version of the facts is true. Lawyers typically prepare intensely for a month or more before trial, deciding which witnesses will testify and which exhibits will be offered as evidence.

Your responsibilities: Meet with your lawyer(s) to prepare for trial, attend the entire trial, and testify truthfully if called.

10. Step 10: Appeal

Q.Step 10: Appeal
A.

A party who believes the trial judge made mistakes when deciding the case can ask a different court to review what they claim are the mistakes. This is called an “appeal.” No new evidence is given to the appeals court and there is no trial. Instead, the lawyers write briefs explaining why the decision should be reversed or affirmed.

11. Questions?

Q.Questions?
A.

Email southdakota@aclu.org or call 605-332-2508.