Often when prospective clients first call me to discuss their legal matter, they tell me that they “got a letter”. That “letter” is usually a summons and complaint! Which needs to be answered within a certain time period or else a judgment will be entered against them. Frankly, I find that most individual clients are in denial when they are sued and do not read (and don’t want to read) the mail that they receive relating to the lawsuit. They are therefore surprised when their bank calls them several months later and tells them that their account has been levied on, because of a default judgment that was entered, because they did not answer the complaint.
In New Jersey state court, a defendant has 35 days from the date of service of process to file a written answer to the complaint with the court. The summons actually states that. If the lawsuit is filed in the Special Civil Part (matters involving $15,000.00 or less), then typically the summons and complaint will be mailed to the defendant by the court. The fact that the process is mailed and not physically served does not make the service any less valid in a Special Civil Part case. It is critical that you note the date that you received the summons and complaint in the mail, so that your attorney will know how much time you have to file an answer.
In the Law Division, the summons and complaint are typically served by a sheriffs officer or private process server, by physically handing it to the defendant or a member of his household. Again, it is important to note the date of service in order to be able to count the 35 days to answer. Service in a Law Division case may be by mail, but no default can be entered for failure to answer when the process is served by mail. A plaintiff can also obtain a court order permitting service by mail, in which case a default may be entered if the defendant fails to file an answer to the complaint.
In future blogs, I will discuss subsequent steps in the litigation process.