If you have a dispute with a business or another person in Arizona and you want to file a lawsuit, you have several different types of court at your disposal. Whether you file in small claims or justice court, state civil court, or federal court generally depends on the amount and type of damages you’re seeking and the residence or location of the person or business you want to sue. Choosing the right court is vital, because filing in the wrong court could result in your lawsuit being dismissed. Although each court has slightly different rules for filing a lawsuit, the basic procedure is roughly the same.
Research the law for your case.
To have a case heard by a judge, you must first state a claim that entitles you to damages under state or federal law.
You can find legal resources on the internet that will help you determine which law applies to your case. Once you know which law in particular you need to read, you can access Arizona state law at http://www.azleg.gov/ArizonaRevisedStatutes.asp.
Lawsuits often are based on negligence, breach of contract, or personal injury. For example, if someone hit you while you were crossing the street, you might sue that person to recover damages for your injuries, including medical bills and lost wages.
If you’re unsure about the law that applies to your case, you might consider meeting an attorney for a free consultation to discuss your dispute. The attorney will advise you on whether you have a claim.
You also could speak with someone at a nearby self-service center, or review the materials available on the self-service center’s website.
Check the statute of limitations.
Arizona law provides deadlines after which you can’t file a lawsuit. The length of time you have to file depends on the type of claim you have.
For example, although Arizona law gives you six years to file a lawsuit for breach of a written contract, you only have one year to sue for wrongful termination or breach of an employment contract.
Personal injury cases generally have a two-year statute of limitations.
Choose the correct court.
To hear your case, the judge must have jurisdiction – legal power and control – over both the subject matter of your lawsuit and the person you’re suing. Different courts have different levels of jurisdiction, and if you sue in the wrong court, you risk having your case dismissed.
Arizona has courts of limited and general jurisdiction. Small claims in Arizona have limited jurisdiction over monetary claims of less than $3,500, while justice courts can hear cases involving up to $10,000 in damages.
State courts generally have jurisdiction over state law claims, while federal courts have jurisdiction over cases arising under federal law or the U.S. Constitution. Federal courts also have jurisdiction over cases where the parties live in different states, provided the amount of money in dispute is over $75,000.
In addition to jurisdiction over the subject matter of your case, the court also must have personal jurisdiction over the person you’re suing. Generally speaking, if the person lives or does business in Arizona, the Arizona courts have jurisdiction over that person. The same is typically true if the events that gave rise to your claim occurred in the state.
For example, if you’re injured in a car accident in Phoenix, you can sue the driver of the other car in Maricopa County Superior Court – even if the driver is from Los Angeles, California.
In addition to jurisdiction, you also must choose the correct court within the state. There actually may be several courts that are proper, in which case you are free to choose the one you like the best or that is most convenient for you.
To return to the previous example, if the other driver was instead from Tucson, Arizona, you would have a choice of filing suit in Maricopa County, where the accident took place, or in Pima County where the defendant lives. If you live in Phoenix, you may decide to file in Maricopa County Superior Court because it is more convenient for you.
If you’re filing your lawsuit in federal court, the same rules regarding personal jurisdiction and venue generally apply. The same federal district covers the entire state of Arizona, but there are three geographic divisions with jurisdiction over specific counties. For example, the Phoenix division covers the counties of Maricopa, Pinal, Yuma, La Paz, and Gila.
Consider hiring an attorney.
Depending on the type of lawsuit you’re filing and its degree of complexity, you might find that an attorney is the best way to ensure your rights are protected.
Lawyers are not allowed in small claims court. However, you might be able to get an attorney to review your case and offer advice without representing you.
If you’re filing in state civil court and you opt to represent yourself, you can have a paralegal prepare, file, and serve your documents for you. Paralegal services also are available to track deadlines and manage other paperwork over the course of litigation and may be much less expensive than hiring an attorney.
If you’re concerned about your ability to afford an attorney, you may qualify for free or reduced-fee services. You can check with your nearest legal aid office to find out what options are available to you.
Send a demand letter.
Because lawsuits can be expensive, stressful, and time-consuming, you should only file a lawsuit as a last resort if you are unable to come to a compromise.
Inform the person of the law they’ve violated and the damages you’ve suffered as a result of their actions.
Provide a specific monetary amount for which you’re willing to settle your claim, as well as a deadline for them to respond. If you don’t receive a response by your deadline, file your complaint.
Keep any settlement negotiations in writing, rather than trying to negotiate over the phone or in person. If you have a written account of the negotiations, the person can’t later go back and claim they didn’t agree to something.
Search for forms.
Depending on how common your type of lawsuit is and what court you’re going to file it in, you may be able to find a fill-in-the-blanks form you can use for your complaint.
A complaint or petition is the first document you must file to initiate a lawsuit in any court.
For example, if you’re filing in small claims court, the clerk has forms available for a complaint both online and at the clerk’s office in the courthouse.
Read the court’s rules of procedure.
If you don’t have a basic understanding of the court’s rules, you risk having your lawsuit thrown out.
Even if you’re representing yourself and have no legal knowledge, the court still holds you to the same rules as it does attorneys, and expects you to know and follow those rules.
Formal rules of procedure aren’t used in small claims or justice courts, which use a more casual, simplified court process designed so you can represent yourself without any significant legal knowledge or training.
Create the caption and title.
The caption or style on your complaint identifies the case in court. The same caption will be used at the top of the first page of every document filed in your lawsuit.
The caption states the name of the court hearing the case and the location, along with the names of the plaintiff and the defendant. Since you are filing the lawsuit, you are the plaintiff. The person or business you’re suing is the defendant.
The caption also includes the case’s file number, but this won’t be assigned until you file your complaint with the clerk. Leave space for it, and the clerk will fill it in.
Below the case number, you should write the title of your document. Since this is the initial filing in the lawsuit, you would write “Complaint.”
Each court has its own formatting requirements for the caption, so if you aren’t using a court-approved form you should get a copy of a complaint filed in another case in that same court to use as a guide for how to format your caption and the rest of your complaint properly.
Write your introductory paragraph.
You should begin your complaint by identifying yourself and the person you’re suing, and giving a brief explanation of the reason you’re suing them.
When you name the defendant, make sure you use his or her full legal name.
Since Arizona is a community property state, if you are suing someone who is married you also must include his or her spouse’s name – even if the spouse had nothing to do with your claim. Otherwise you’ll be unable to collect your judgment if you win your case.
If you’re filing in federal court, you must begin your complaint with a jurisdictional statement explaining how that court has subject matter and personal jurisdiction over your lawsuit.
Set forth your claims in numbered paragraphs.
The law that provides the basis of your claim gives you each element you must prove to win your case. Those elements can be used as an outline for your complaint.
For example, if you were suing for breach of contract, your complaint should include allegations that a valid contract existed between you and the defendant, that the contract’s terms were breached, and that you suffered damages as a result of that breach.
Each paragraph should contain only one allegation or factual statement, which allows the defendant to respond to each individually and state whether he admits, denies, or has no knowledge of the allegation.
If you’re filing in justice court, the complaint form is more simplified and only requires a brief statement of the facts upon which the court’s jurisdiction and venue depends, a showing of your legal entitlement to relief from the court, and a demand for that relief from the court.
Describe your damages.
If you’re asking the court to award you monetary damages, you should list a specific amount along with a brief explanation of how you arrived at that number or the losses you’ve sustained for which that money will compensate you.
Close your complaint with a brief statement asking the court to award the damages you’ve listed and any other relief the judge feels proper under the facts of the case.
Create your signature block.
All complaints must be signed by the person filing them. If you are represented by an attorney, both you and the attorney must sign the complaint.
Leave space and a blank line for your signature. Underneath the line, type your full legal name and include contact information such as your address and phone number. You also may include your email address if you want it to be used for communication about the case.
Complete any other forms.
The clerk of the court where you’re filing your complaint will be able to tell you if there are any other forms such as a civil cover sheet that the court requires.
For example, in addition to your summons and complaint you might also need to include a cover sheet. A cover sheet provides the name and contact information for the parties in the case and a summary of the issues being decided.
Sign your forms.
Depending on the court and the type of lawsuit you’re filing, you may have to sign your complaint in the presence of the court clerk or in front of a notary public.
Typically the court requires your signature to be in blue or black ink.
Fill out your summons.
The summons tells the court how you’re delivering a copy of the complaint to the defendant, and generally must be completed on the same day you file your complaint and initiate the service process.
The clerk will have a form you can use for your summons, which looks the same regardless of what kind of civil lawsuit you file. Each type of court has its own form, however, so make sure you’re using the summons for the court in which you’re filing your lawsuit.
The summons or certificate of service, whichever is used, must be signed and dated the same day you expect to have your complaint served on the defendant.
Make copies of all your documents.
After you’ve completed all your documents, you must make at least two copies – one for your own records and one for the defendant – before you file the originals with the court.
If you’re suing more than one person or business, you’ll need a copy for each of them.
Depending on the type of complaint you’re filing, the court may require you to make additional copies to provide to other interested parties.
Take your documents to the clerk’s office.
The clerk will stamp “filed” with the date on your originals and each of your copies after you’ve paid filing fees.
Filing fees vary depending on the type of case you’re filing and what court you’re filing it in. If you’re using the small claims or justice court, your filing fees are $52. If you’re filing in state court, expect your fees to be somewhere between $300 and $500, depending on the type and complexity of your case. The filing fee in federal court is $400.
If you can’t afford filing fees, you may be eligible for a fee waiver or deferral. A deferral postpones your payment of fees or allows you to pay them in increments, while a waiver means you don’t have to pay fees at all. To apply for either, you must fill out an application and submit it to the court.
Have the defendant served.
Before your case can be heard by a judge you must be able to prove that the defendant had notice of the suit.
The easiest way to complete service is to mail your complaint using certified mail. If you’re suing in small claims or state court, the clerk’s office can provide you with certified mail forms which you can use at any post office.
You also can use the sheriff’s department or a private processing service to hand-deliver the complaint to the defendant personally.
You must serve a separate copy of the lawsuit to each defendant, including spouses.
Once service is completed, you must file your proof of service at the clerk’s office. Make a copy of your receipt or other proof before you file it so you have a copy for your own records.
Respond to any counterclaims.
When the defendant answers your lawsuit, she may include claims against you as well.
The defendant has 20 days to answer your complaint. If you don’t receive an answer within that time, you may be able to get a default judgment in your case – meaning you simply show up to court for your hearing and the judge grants the relief you asked for in your complaint.
The defendant also may raise counterclaims against you, in which case you have 20 days to answer them just as the defendant answered you. If you don’t respond to the defendant’s counterclaims, the defendant also may win by default.
Participate in discovery.
During the discovery process both you and the defendant have the opportunity to exchange documents and ask each other questions related to the lawsuit.
Small claims or justice courts do not have discovery. If you’re filing in state court, you must file a disclosure statement with the court that lists all exhibits or documents you plan to present as evidence, as well as any witnesses you intend to call.
Consider using alternate dispute resolution such as mediation or arbitration.
A neutral, third-party mediator may be able to help you and the defendant come to a compromise on your case without going to trial.
If you’re worried about costs, there may be a relatively inexpensive community mediation service near you that you could use. You might also check with the clerk of court or at the court’s self-help center to find out what services are recommended there.
If you’re filing in state court and the damages in your case do not exceed $50,000, Arizona state law requires your case proceed to arbitration before you go to trial. Arbitration is much like a non-jury trial before a judge, but with more relaxed rules of evidence and procedure.
Each side presents its case to the arbitrator, who applies Arizona law to the facts of the case to make a decision. If either side is dissatisfied with the arbitrator’s decision, it can be appealed to the court where the case will be decided either by a judge or jury.
Prepare for trial.
If you and the defendant are unable to resolve your dispute, you can have your case decided by a judge or jury.
Keep in mind you do not have the right to a trial by jury in a small claims case.
If you’re appealing an arbitrator’s decision, you should bear in mind that if you don’t receive at least 23 percent more in damages than the arbitrator awarded you, the court may impose sanctions which can include the costs and attorney’s fees incurred by the other side.