Filing Suit in Maryland’s District Courts – Realistic Expectations

There are a great many advantages in filing a lawsuit in one of Maryland’s district courts.

Generally, you get to court sooner than you would if the case is in circuit court. However, you must recognize how the process operates so that you develop reasonable expectations.

The lawsuit is filed with the district court and the paper/pleading to open the suit is called a complaint. The defendant must be properly served with the complaint. The party bringing the lawsuit is ineligible to perform service of process, meaning that the defendant is “served” by a disinterested party with a copy of the  complaint and the summons and therefore the defendant has notice of the cause of action. A cause of action in a civil case may include some of the following: seeking monetary  damages because a defendant driver of a vehicle was negligent, seeking return of an engagement ring, seeking an order to prevent further domestic violence, obtaining a peace order, seeking the payment of the loan when payments are in arrears, or suing a tenant for rent.

When a complaint is filed on the defendant, the defendant may file a countersuit against you for which the courts have rules. Either a suit or a countersuit can involve “discovery” and other important issues, all of which are reasons to have a lawyer representing you.

The most that you can sue for in a district court is $30,000. There are no jury trials in the district courts however if the amount in controversy (the amount you are suing for) exceeds $15,000, you may request a jury trial and the case will then move to circuit court.

When the suit is filed, the court clerk sends the complaint to the plaintiff (the person who brought the lawsuit) along with a summons and a court date is placed on the summons. Often the court date will be 60 to 90 days from the date the complaint was filed. Again, the plaintiff has the responsibility to have the complaint and the summons personally served on the defendant. The court requires personal service to occur within a specific time period and, if the service of process does not occur, a request to reissue the summons is required. The plaintiff has the choice of obtaining service of process privately or through the county’s Sheriff’s Department. Our office uses either certified mail (restricted delivery) or a private process server.

When the defendant is served with the complaint and the summons, the defendant is required to file an answer which is called a “notice of intention to defend”. The rule states that the notice of intention to defend must be filed within 15 days from the date that the defendant is served with the summons and complaint. The rule is often relaxed, allowing defendants who do not file the notice of intention to defend to appear at the trial date. A judge will ask the defendant whether the defendant has a defense to the complaint or whether the defendant wishes to pay the damages or the amount sought that is stated in the complaint. Assuming that the defendant had not filed the notice of intention to defend, and if the Court is satisfied that there is a reasonable defense, the Court, in its discretion, will likely create a new trial date.

The new trial date can be 30 to 90 days and possibly more from the first trial date.

However, if the defendant has filed a notice of intention to defend, the court will automatically create a new trial date and that may be 30 to 90 days from the date the notice of intention to defend was filed. However, in jurisdictions such as Baltimore City, Prince George’s County, or large jurisdictions, and where the circumstances exist of a backlog of previously filed complaints, the court may create a new trial date that exceeds 90 days from the date of the notice of intention to defend.

There may be other reasons for additional changes of the trial date and these may include: the inability of the witness to be available on a specific trial date, when either party is unavailable for justifiable reasons, or when one of the attorneys is justifiably unavailable. Requests for postponements are discouraged and the courts require bona fide reasons for granting a postponement of the case.

On the date of trial, if there are many cases in the assigned courtroom, the parties may be directed to another courtroom, or if all of the courtrooms are packed with other parties, your case may not be tried on the scheduled date of trial. When this occurs, the court may specially set the next trial date in order to ensure that the parties are able to have the case tried without further court-necessitated delays. Here the judge may instruct the clerk of the court to have the party's case heard on a date where there will not be another case or cases scheduled to be heard at the same date and time.

Mediation, which is an alternative to having the case tried before a judge, is encouraged. At the beginning of the court proceeding, the judge will explain mediation. Some courts have a video which helps the parties understand the mediation process. The purpose of mediation is to resolve the case by having each party communicate their position and work with the trained mediator, with the objective of settling the case, which often means reaching a compromise. If the case were tried, only one of the parties would obtain the desired result. Upon completion of each party’s testimony, the attorney for each party summarizes why his/her client should prevail. The judge makes a decision, which may be a judgment in the sum of a certain amount, an order preventing additional and future domestic violence, the eviction of the tenant from failure to pay rent, the issuance of a peace order, other judgments or orders; or the judge may determine that the plaintiff has not proven the case and the plaintiff looses the case.

If either party is dissatisfied with the judgment of the Court, there are specific rules regarding the right to appeal to the circuit court. There are specific time periods and other requirements for an appeal. For example, the appeal must be stated in writing and an appeal fee must be paid. For civil cases if the amount in controversy is below $5000, a new trial at the circuit court will occur. The judge at the circuit court level is not bound to consider what occurred at the district court level. If the amount in controversy exceeds $5000, the circuit court requires that the appealing party furnish the circuit court with a transcript of the district court testimony and the reasoning for the circuit court to change the outcome that occurred in the district court. The party or the attorney who brings the appeal provides an oral argument at the circuit court. In this situation the case is not retried but the judge views the appeal case’s written documents and the transcript and makes a decision based upon the previously stated documents as well as the written arguments and oral arguments of the opposing party. It is possible for both parties to appeal the decision of the district court.

A small number of cases that are appealed from the district court and either tried in or appealed to the circuit court are appealed to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. If the parties wish to obtain an appeal to the Maryland Court of Appeals, there are specific rules governing how to request an appeal to that court.

In my 35 years and more in the practice of law, I never experienced a civil case that went from the district court system to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. It does happen but it is most unlikely.

Often one the purposes of seeking a trial in the district court is to get to the courthouse sooner than if you filed in circuit court. As explained above, there can be delays in getting to court.

Fred Antenberg has practiced law throughout central Maryland both at the district and circuit court levels. Fred can discuss the advantages of how to proceed in your case. Call Fred at 410-730-4404 to discuss your case.