Wednesday, August 4, 2010

an outline of the civil lawsuit process

Apparently, most people have little or no knowledge of how the civil lawsuit process works, or even how long it is going to take for the first major phases of the Delgado v. Araguz probate/inheritance lawsuit to be completed. Unless, there is an out of court settlement between the parties, based on the Texas court rules of civil procedure, the trial court level of this lawsuit is likely to last as long as a year, unless one of the parties succeeds with a Motion for Summary Judgment by the court without trial.

Here is a list of the major steps in a civil lawsuit:
  • Plaintiff files a summons and petition/complaint
  • Plaintiff files an optional motion for temporary restraining order (TRO) with petition/complaint
  • Show Cause Hearing for TRO - (TRO usually granted)
  • Defendant has option to file motion to attack validity of petition/complaint
  • Defendant files an answer to the petition/complaint
  • Discovery begins - which is the evidence gathering process
    • The judge holds a hearing and requires the parties to develop a discovery plan and schedule
    • The parties exchange written questions called interrogatories
    • The parties exchange written requests for production of documents and other evidence
    • The parties subpoena evidence from people not a party to the lawsuit
    • The parties take oral depositions of opposing parties, and non-party witnesses
    • The plaintiff might file a motion for court order for medical examination of the defendant
  • At any time, either party may file a motion for summary judgment by the court using existing evidence, without trial.
  • Discovery Deadline arrives - about nine months in Texas
  • The parties file various pre-trial motions.

    • a party may move to disallow presentation of certain evidence or witness(es)
    • either party may move to have a fact agreed upon (called stipulation)
  • A trial date is set and the case proceeds to trial, either by a judge alone, or by a jury.
  • Either party may appeal the verdict of judgment. However, appeals courts consider only matters of law, not the matters of fact, in a case.
The temporary restraining order (TRO) motion hearing that occurred on Friday July 23, 2010, and which began the height of the media frenzy over the case, is actually standard procedure. It would have been extremely unusual for the judge to do anything other than grant a TRO that places the funds at issue in the case into stasis until the court process has been completed. In this case the judge froze the finances at issue from access by either party. The word temporary is what is most important about a temporary restraining order, and such a decision may have nothing to do with the final outcome of a case, it just freezes funds and orders the parties to refrain from certain activities that might otherwise render the litigation pointless. At the end of the lawsuit, the judge will likely issue a permanent injunction against one of the parties, enjoining that party from access to the funds and assigning the funds in question to the prevailing party. However, the judge is likely to issue yet another temporary restraining order at the same time, that keeps the funds frozen during the pendency of whatever appeals court proceedings follow the trial court's ruling.

The current phase of the lawsuit is the Motion to Dismiss, filed by the attorneys defending Nikki Araguz, on the basis that the plaintiff does not have a claim on which relief can be granted as a matter of law. It doesn't seem likely that the judge is going to grant such a motion however. Instead, it seems like most courts would withhold judgment on the central issues in the case, and instead order the case forward into discovery, the evidence gathering phase, so that the parties can develop their evidence and present their cases to the court again once they are fully developed. The logic is that the parties should have an opportunity to develop and present a complete court record, so that an appeals court considering the matter has a full set of findings of facts and findings of law.

The attorneys defending Nikki Araguz have also filed a motion to exclude some of Thomas Araguz's finances from consideration within the lawsuit. That motion argues that life insurance policies and pension fund policies on which Thomas Araguz specifically designated Nikki Araguz as the beneficiary should not be at issue in the lawsuit, and should therefore be unfrozen and made available to Nikki Araguz immediately. The argument the attorneys for Nikki Araguz have apparently made includes the fact that Thomas Araguz checked the "other" box on those documents, implying that the issue of marriage should not apply to those funds. As of this writing, the judge has not yet ruled on this motion, but a hearing has been set for Monday August 16, 2010.

After a period of evidence gathering, either party can again present its case to the court for judgment as matter of law by the judge, without a trial or jury. That process is called summary judgment. It seems likely to expect that both sides will use that tactic at some point during the litigation. The discovery process is likely to continue until the beginning of 2011, unless the discovery process is interrupted by one or motions for summary judgment from either side of the case.

Even if this case were to go to trial, the court seems likely to hold a bench trial, to be judged as a matter of law by the judge, without the need to determine matters of fact using a jury.

Given the pugnacious demeanor of the parties in this case, it seems all but certain that the parties will take this case to an appeals court if they don't receive an outcome that satisfies them. An appeals court only considers "matters of law" for review and does not reconsider the facts on which its legal decisions should be made. Each stage of the appeals process can take a as long as a year or more to complete. Real life doesn't operate like fictional television courtroom drama. In fact, the media frenzy and public furor seem likely to have died down long before this case reaches its final conclusion.

Texas Court Rules of Civil Procedure - PDF file format

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