When the Sheriff is at the Door


One of the most unnerving experiences a designer can have is being the recipient of a lawsuit or subpoena by a local marshal. Print out this article and keep it handy so that you can pull it out in case you ever need it.

I just had papers served to me. Does this mean that I am being sued?
Not necessarily. While the papers could be a summons and complaint bringing you into a lawsuit, they could also be a subpoena for documents (Subpoena Duces Tecum) or for your testimony (Subpoena Ad Testificandum), or both.

The process-server is here in my office. Should I give him any information at this point?
No. Simply accept the service of the papers, sign a receipt if requested, and make a note of the time and date of the service, and of the process server’s name.

OK, the process-server is gone. What do I do now?
The best thing to do now is to read the documents that were given to you. If it is a subpoena, determine what is being demanded of you (your testimony in court, or merely documents). If it is a summons and complaint, identify the plaintiff and the project. Find the date by which a response is demanded. Keep in mind that extensions are routinely granted, but you should not neglect the matter.

I’m reading, I’m reading. What is this thing?
It is likely to be one of three items:

a) Summons and Complaint – in most places a lawsuit is begun when the firm or individual is served with a summons and complaint. You may be one of the primary defendants, or you may be brought in by one of the primary defendants as a third-party defendant. The substance of the dispute is listed either in the complaint or in the demand.

b) Subpoena Duces Tecum – this is a subpoena for you to produce documents relating to the matter shown.

c) Subpoena Ad Testificandum – this is a subpoena for you to appear. The time and date are usually listed on the subpoena.

Keep in mind that a subpoena may be followed by a lawsuit or inclusion in an existing lawsuit.

Once you have identified the papers, you should act as soon as possible. Contact your insurance broker to determine if the situation must be reported to your insurance company so as not to jeopardize coverage. Your insurer is likely to have several attorneys with whom it feels comfortable and may insist on having you use one of them.

The response to a summons and complaint or the subpoena should be made by or overseen by an attorney. An entire copy of that summons and complaint or the subpoena should be sent to your attorney as soon as possible and you should discuss strategy only with your attorney. Your attorney will instruct you on what materials you will need to compile in order to respond.

Finally, create a new folder that will hold all the correspondence having to do with the summons and complaint or subpoena, and keep it separate from your project file. While you may have to disclose the contents of your project file, the details of your legal strategy should remain only between you and your attorney and should be protected under the rules of client/attorney privilege.