Glossary of Legal Terms

To familiarize you with words that you will hear frequently, the following is a list of some legal terms and their definitions: (this could be implemented like an FAQ page)


ACTION - Another word for lawsuit.

AFFIDAVIT - A written statement of facts made under oath.

ALTERNATIVE DISPUTE RESOLUTION - ADR offers the parties to a civil action the opportunity to resolve that dispute without having to go through a full-fledged trial that can be both lengthy and costly.

AMEND - To change an existing complaint, pleading, or motion that is already before the Court.

ANSWER - A document filed by the defendant in response to the complaint.

CASE - Another word for lawsuit.

CERTIFICATE OF SERVICE - Every pleading, correspondence, or other document, subsequent to the original complaint shall be served upon each of the parties who have appeared in the case. Each pleading must contain a certificate of service, which shall state the name and address of the attorney or party served, the manner of service, and the date of service. This lets the Court know that the other parties have been served a copy of the same document filed with the Court. If you attempt to file something that does not contain a certificate of service, the Court may return it to you without filing.

COMPLAINT - The document that a plaintiff files with the Clerk of Court to initiate a lawsuit. It contains a clear statement of the important information about the claim(s) of the plaintiff and identifies each defendant.

COUNSEL - One who has been admitted as an attorney at law to assist his/her client with advice, and speaks for him/her in open court.

DAMAGES - Money sought by a party who has suffered a legal wrong.

DEFENDANT - The party being sued.

DEPOSITION - A discovery (formal pre-trial investigation) tool in which a party (or his/her attorney) asks a series of oral questions of another party or witness, who answers under oath. The proceeding is recorded by a court reporter.

DISCOVERY - Formal investigation that parties conduct before trial to obtain information from each other about the case and to prepare for settlement or trial. The primary tools in most cases are depositions and interrogatories.

DOCKET NUMBER - The civil case number assigned to a case by the Clerk’s Office when a new complaint is filed. The number includes the designation of the division where the case is filed, which will be either 1 (Western Division), 3 (Davenport Division), or 4 (Central Division); the last two digits of the calendar year in which the case is filed; the “CV” designation for a civil case; the file number assigned; and the initials of the District or Magistrate Judge to whom the case is assigned. (Example -4:02CV4000ABC).

INTERROGATORIES - Questions in written form submitted by one party to another party that must be answered under oath as part of the pre-trial investigation of a lawsuit.

IN FORMA PAUPERIS (IFP) - To proceed without prepayment of costs or fees for filing a complaint.

JUDGMENT - A final court ruling resolving the claims at issue and determining the rights and obligations of the parties.

JURISDICTION - The power or legal authority of the Court to hear and decide a case.

LAWSUIT - A legal proceeding initiated in court.

LITIGANT - A party to a lawsuit.

MOTION - A request made to the Court for the purpose of obtaining a ruling or order directing an act to be performed in favor of the filer. The Court may either hold a hearing on the motion requiring the parties to appear, or the Judge may decide the motion without a hearing.

ORDER - A ruling issued by a Judge or a Magistrate Judge that usually directs the plaintiff or the defendant to do something. An order may also be issued to grant or deny a motion.

PARTY - A person or entity that has brought a lawsuit, or one who is defending against or responding to a lawsuit.

PLAINTIFF - The person who is filing the complaint against an individual, a corporation or company, or a government agency.

PRO SE - If you are filing a lawsuit on your own and will represent yourself, you are proceeding pro se.

RELIEF - What a party asks the Court to do, or what the Court grants to a party.

RULE 16 CONFERENCE - A Rule 16 conference is a pre-trial conference held between the parties and the Judge. The conference is held after the parties have been served, and its purpose is to develop an appropriate pre-trial plan that meets the needs of the individual case. At the conference, parties discuss issues affecting the case, and a trial date is usually set.

SERVICE OF PROCESS - The delivery of the summons and complaint to an opposing party.

SERVICE (OF DOCUMENTS) - The delivery of any documents (after the summons and complaint) to an opposing party.

STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS - The time period following an event in which a lawsuit can be filed.

STATUTES - Laws enacted by legislatures.

SUBPOENA - An order for a person to appear in court or at a deposition, or to produce documents.

SUMMONS - A document providing notice to the defendant that an action has been brought against him/her and an answer is required.

TRIAL - The in-court examination and resolution of issues between litigants.

VENUE - The geographic location where a case is filed and tried.

WAIVER OF SERVICE OF SUMMONS - Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4, a plaintiff can request a defendant to forego service of summons. To do this, the plaintiff must send a copy of his/her complaint with two “Notice of Lawsuit and request for Waiver of Service of Summons” forms by first class mail to the defendant(s). The defendant(s), however, does not have to agree to the request and can insist on being served with a summons.