After learning you’re a lawyer, perfect strangers often feel free to tell you their problems and then ask, “Can I sue someone?”
I generally give the correct answer (“Of course”), then duck all the more interesting follow-up questions, like “What would happen next?,” “Do I have a potential claim or will it just be thrown out?,” “Will I win?,” or “Will I be hit with a nasty counterclaim and realize I made a terrible mistake opening up this Dickensian can of worms?”
As James Thurber says in The 13 Clocks, “anyone can merely hunt for the thorny Boar of Borythorn.” Agreeing to go hunting is entirely different from accepting a quest to slay the nonexistent Boar. In 2017, all you need to sue someone in Washington State is a credit card number good for $240, and a send button. Of course, answering the question of what happens next can take months or years. You don’t need to be a lawyer for either task.
But degrees in both English and law are useful for telling this kind of story. Here is how it all starts:
As I previously announced, this month I filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court against the Seattle firm Ogden Murphy Wallace and one of its partners, Patrick Pearce. When I was still employed by the Washington Attorney General’s Office, I submitted a written sexual orientation discrimination complaint regarding an unpleasant and homophobic encounter with my immediate supervisor. The AGO appointed Mr. Pearce as an ostensibly “independent” outside investigator to look into my discrimination allegations. Instead, the Ogden Murphy Report is third-rate taxpayer-funded character assassination. Just two years before, the same Seattle lawyer did the same thing to another distinguished state employee – Chief Hearing Officer Patricia Petersen, who like me was fired on the basis of Mr. Pearce’s “independent” investigation into her whistleblower complaint.
A civil lawsuit starts with two documents: a Summons and a Complaint.
The Summons is a message sent on behalf of the Court, telling the defendants that a lawsuit has been filed against them, and they or their lawyer need to respond in some fashion within twenty days or face the consequences.
The Complaint is how a plaintiff begins to tell his story. The purpose of the Complaint is to put the defendants on notice of what kind of lawsuit they can expect to be a part of. In the old days, you had to follow very detailed rules for explicitly setting forth each of the particular elements and other requirements for each specific kind of legal claim. Now we have “notice pleading,” which lets the plaintiff open the door to access the community’s tools for enforcing the rule of law by setting forth a general statement of the factual allegations he believes entitle him to relief if ultimately proven to be true. Over the following several months of litigation, both sides will have the opportunity to figure out the contours of the plaintiff’s claims and the defendants’ defenses, and to locate and examine the body of evidence that the trier of fact will ultimately rely on to determine which of each party’s factual allegations is true.
But of course the system was set up by and for lawyers, so we start with some procedural niceties.
The caption looks like this:
IN THE SUPERIOR COURT OF THE STATE OF WASHINGTON
IN AND FOR THE COUNTY OF KING
OGDEN MURPHY WALLACE PLLC and PATRICK PEARCE,
No. 17-2-11921-1 SEA
The caption starts with an extra wide top margin, so everyone has room to stamp dates and squiggles on their own hard copy of everything. Then it identifies the specific court that will have jurisdiction over plaintiff’s claim. In Washington, the Superior Court is the statewide general trial level of court that handles all kinds of court actions, including civil, family, and criminal matters. (District, municipal, and other types of courts may address small claims and crimes, or more particular types of relief.) All superior court judges are originally either appointed by the Governor to a vacancy, or successfully run for an open seat on the bench. Judges then stand for election every four years. Most superior courts cover a single county. King County has the largest superior court, with 53 judges.
Next, the left side of the caption identifies the parties. Here I’m the only plaintiff. There are two defendants. One is a professional limited liability corporation, and the other is an individual who is one of the members of the PLLC.
On the right side, the caption includes the Court’s case number, and the name of the document. Lawyers call each stand-alone document filed with court a “pleading,” even though the technical definition of pleading is limited to certain key case documents like the plaintiff’s Complaint and the defendants’ Answer. The Court’s docket for each case is available online, and serves as a hyperlinked index to all materials filed in the case.
But enough of this tedious law stuff. I’ll address the substance my Complaint another time. It’s a lovely Friday, go outside.
Click here for more information about my lawsuit against Ogden Murphy Wallace PLLC and Patrick Pearce