Allison Harrison
June 9, 2023

Decoding Legal Summons: Your Essential Guide to Understanding and Responding

Introduction: The Basics of a Legal Summons

A summons is a legal notice that the receiver is being sued. A summons is generated by the Clerk of Courts once a lawsuit is filed. The summons is accompanied by a copy of a lawsuit. A summons is an official notice of the lawsuit and is served upon the Defendant named in the lawsuit. In moves, you see the line “you’ve got served” when the summons and lawsuit are delivered to the Defendant. Summons can be issued by certified mail (where you sign for it), regular mail, process server, publication or bailiff. It is important to note when you received the summons because the time to respond to the lawsuit starts ticking once you receive the summons. 

The Process of Issuing a Summons: Clerk of Courts' Role

Summons are governed by Civil Rule of Procedure 4 which states, in relevant part, “The summons shall be signed by the clerk, contain the name and address of the court and the names and addresses of the parties, be directed to the defendant, state the name and address of the plaintiff's attorney, if any, otherwise the plaintiff's address, and the times within which these rules or any statutory provision require the defendant to appear and defend, and shall notify the defendant that in case of failure to do so, judgment by default will be rendered against the defendant for the relief demanded in the complaint.” The summons summarizes what to do once you have received the complaint! If, for some reason, a Complaint is served on a party without a summons, it can be challenged in Court as improper service and the time to answer and defend is delayed. 

Responding to the Summons: Time Frames and Procedures

Once the Complaint and Summons have been served on the Defendant, the clock starts ticking for the Defendant to file an Answer or otherwise defend the Complaint. In Ohio, Defendant have 28 days to Answer or otherwise defend the Complaint (small claims is an exception). In Municipal Court and Common Pleas Court an Answer or a Civil Rule 30(b)(5) Motion must be filed within 28 days of service. Many individuals and small businesses miss filing an answer because they wait for “their day in court.” In both Municipal and Common Pleas the parties to the lawsuit typically do not see the Judge for months after the lawsuit and it's usually for a scheduling conference (where you set deadlines for discovery and pick trial dates). 

Conclusion: The Criticality of Responding to a Summons

Parties who file a complaint only have six months from the date the Complaint is filed to serve the Defendant(s) named in the lawsuit. After six months, courts are permitted to dismiss the complaint unless the Plaintiff can show good cause why the defendant has not been served. Plaintiffs can also ask Defendants to waive formal service. Formal service is waived by a party when they sign a document (or respond to an email) explicitly stating they waive formal service. If formal service is waived the Plaintiff can send the Defendant the lawsuit (in email, mail, fax, or hand delivery) without a summons.