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Being involved in civil litigation in Iowa can be a frustrating experience. Many rules and procedures are involved, and a trial can be lengthy. Yet even in this complicated process, some basic steps can be taken to save time and money.  

The Parties  

First, it is helpful to identify the persons or “parties” involved. The person filing the lawsuit is the plaintiff. This can be a natural or legal person, such as a corporation or business. It is the responsibility of the plaintiff who is aggrieved or has suffered a loss or injury to give the court and the other party official notice of the suit by filing a notice document with the court with a copy of the complaint, also called the Petition because it in effect petitions the course for some sort of relief or legal order.    

 

The Petition  

The complaint contains the allegations or claims made by the plaintiff against the other party, the respondent, or the person responding to the complaint. The respondent is called the Defendant if the issue involves a criminal issue. The notice and the complaint are served together to the respondent through an outside third party called a process server, given that he or she is responsible for giving the respondent the notice and Petition.    

An unrelated outside person must act as a process server because the court wants to ensure that the respondent receives this notice and Petition fairly and without personal trickery. Once these documents are received, the respondent has 30 days to respond to the Petition by filing an Answer with the court. Fortunately, filing all the documents needed in a lawsuit can not be filed electronically online after the party sets up an account. Once this is done, electronic notice is automatically provided to all parties via a designated email address.  

 

Jurisdiction and Venue  

Two critical issues to understand before a party files the lawsuit is to understand the proper jurisdiction and venue. Jurisdiction refers to a particular court’s authority to hear the lawsuit based on the location and type of controversy in the lawsuit. A district court in Iowa typically has general authority to hear most legal issues if the legal problem is solely or mainly located in Iowa. Also, suppose the type of controversy or subject matter is specialized, such as a bankruptcy case or a federal tax problem case. In that case, these issues are decided at the federal court level.    

The venue just refers to the specific location or country courthouse in Iowa, which is the best situation to hear the case, either because the relevant facts of the case are in this county, and/or the persons involved in the lawsuit are in a particular county, etc., Another critical concern is when there is suit about the property, the venue will be given to a country where the property is located. The venue can sometimes be changed depending on the consent of the parties. Jurisdiction, however, is not optional and must follow the law providing the courts, in general, the authority to decide a case.  

Both the Petition and the answer have some basic requirements. Still, as Iowa is a “constructive notice” state, the statement of facts and legal conclusions contained in these documents need only be specific and understandable enough to ensure both parties know each party’s position. Both the Petition and the answer have three basic parts.    

The Petition first states the basic facts of this case then draws legal conclusions or legal claims based upon the facts, and thirdly, it makes a request or a prayer for relief. The answer has the same structure; it contains a basic set of facts, draws conclusions from the facts called defense, and then asks or prays to the court for relief which is usually a dismissal of the Petition. It may also contain additional facts, defenses, and an excuse that might be legally sufficient to explain why the alleged conduct happened.    

Also important, a counterclaim against the plaintiff might be added to the answer in which the respondent brings their claims for damages and relief against the Petitioner.   In Iowa, there is a crucial rule affecting counterclaims. To be admitted to the case, the law requires that most counterclaims be raised and pleaded at the start of the case in the original answer. This is required to prevent a later surprise to the court and other parties by bringing in at a later period a claim which could have best been made at the start. A counterclaim that is not made at the outset thus might not be later admitted by the court, given that admitting it later might prejudice the trial.    

After the Petition and the answer, both sides may explain the specifics of their position in fuller detail. The Petitioner thus might file a “Reply” to the “Answer”  

Discovery  

Once the parties have stated their respective positions, the court will start the discovery process. Discovery is a process in which the parties must provide each other with relevant information about the case. This is done through a series of discovery requests. A request for relevant documents is called a request for production. On one side, while identifying a type of document, it wants to be produced or given access to as a form of proof. This can include all documents depending on whether the document is relevant to the case. Tax records, bank accounts, phone logs, and social media blog calls can be requested for production.    

A request for the other side to answer questions about the case is called an interrogatory, and a request for a party to directly answer questions n person is called a deposition. The answers to these questions are made in writing and are also under oath.  

A deposition is where a witness in the trial is asked to answer relevant questions about the case, and the answers given are taken under oath. This means that if the person providing the answers, the deponent, intentionally provides wrong answers, he or she can later be prosecuted for perjury, which is a felony crime.    

The deposition record can be made as a transcript and/or video camera. Depositions serve a strategic purpose. Once a deponent has made a statement under oath, it can later be used at trial to contradict the witness if the witness tries to change their story. These are the three tools that each side has to obtain the information it needs to conduct its case.   One other point: discovery can sometimes be an extended process, in which additional discovery requests can be made after the earlier request has provided new evidence as to what might be helpful for other sources of evidence.    

If one side decides it does not want to cooperate in the discovery process because it believes the requests it has received or unreasonable, it may object and decline to produce the evidence. At this point, the requesting side can file a subpoena with the court, which will make a ruling on the request for evidence, and if it’s found to be relevant, the court will order the non-producing party to produce the documents or answers requested.  

It is important to remember that litigation is an adversarial process, meaning each side needs to move forward with this case, as is the other side. This idea relates to former times when it was thought that a person telling the truth could prove his case through an adversarial ordeal or battle. While actual combat is obviously no longer allowed, each party is encouraged to pursue its truth in the discovery and trial process.    

Once discovery is completed, one or both parties might believe their case has changed, given the new information. If so, a party can make a motion to the court to change the status of their case, dismiss a claim, or simply make a judgment on the evidence as it is. This can include a motion to dismiss a claim made by one state, a motion for summary judgment, or a judgment now because the facts are such that this case does not need to go to trial. Once these motions are ruled on, the parties will go to trial.  

Dispute Resolution  

Interestingly, most lawsuits filed in court tend to be settled before going to trial. This happens not only when one party begins to lose faith in their cause or beings to realize there are not enough facts to support the party’s claims. Frequently the parties utilize dispute resolution mechanisms to come to an out-of-court solution.  

Mediation  

One such dispute resolution is mediation. The courts of Iowa frequently recommend and sometimes even require mediation before going to trial. The parties in a small claims court for landlord-tenant disputes must consider mediation before the small claims trial. This is also a required procedure in dissolution cases. In both instances, the parties will meet before a mediator and try to find an informal solution that they can agree upon and then sign a formal agreement, after which the case is dismissed at the court level.  

Mediation is a process in which the side explains their point of view. This is done during several private discussions between the mediator and each party in which the mediator finally proposes a possible acceptable solution to each party. The solution the mediator proposes does not have to strictly follow the law. A mediator is not required to follow the law in proposing a solution.    

Instead, he or she, while in all probability will use the law to frame or organize the problem, may propose an informal solution or, in the alternative, recommend a strictly legal solution based on the law. It should be noted that in any scenario, the parties are not required to accept the solution. Either party is free to disregard it if the party does not believe it is the solution that works for them.    

Nevertheless, mediation can be very effective in specific scenarios, especially when the parties wish to continue their relationship and not severe it with the bad feelings that can develop between them if the suit goes to trial. It can truthfully be said that mediation can preserve a relationship to the extent that a trial can destroy it.    

A dispute between a landlord and tenant can be solved in mediation, whereby the parties maintain the existing relationship. If resolved in mediation, a dispute between an employer or employee can effectively preserve an employment relationship that benefits both parties. Similarly, mediation is helpful in the business world between two businesses with a beneficial business relationship. A supplier might have a valid grievance with his customer, a business that depends upon this supplier and choose mediation to maintain the existing business relationship.  

There can be a few shortcomings to mediation. Either party can use the appeal to mediation as a delay tactic and as a way and generating lousy faith in the relationship if the negotiations in mediation are not done in good faith. To this extent, mediation can be a waste of time and money. Depending on their skill and experience, Mediators can charge a hefty fee. And while both parties generally share the fee, hours of mediation bring costs to both parties.  

Arbitration  

A similar type of dispute resolution mechanism in arbitration. Arbitration is when the solution developed by the arbitrator is mandatory and must be accepted by the parties. For arbitration, the parties must have agreed upon it in writing. Arbitration clauses are standard in certain types of contracts. Insurance for auto and home and business frequently included arbitration clauses in their contracts to prevent costly and sometimes inappropriate litigation.    

Employment contracts frequently also use arbitration as a means of resolving employment disputes. This use of arbitration can thus prevent a costly trial with extensive pretrial discovery procedures and can also be effective in preserving the employer-employee relationship. This is particularly true with a large organization whose employees belong to a union whereby the disagreements between the employer and many employees, sometimes in the thousands, resolve a dispute through an arbitrator.    

There are a few differences between mediation and arbitration. Mediation usually involves one mediator who recommends a solution. Arbitration can also involve a single mediator but can frequently resort to an arbitration panel of three. This is thought to be a means of ensuring fairness in a process that might otherwise result in bias.    

Each party picks a mediator from the selected list of mediators. Then the two mediators chosen by each side pick a third mediator that each side is comfortable with. This three-panel arbitration process thus reduces the chance of bias that might result when a single person acts as an arbitrator. After all, a lot can be at stake in arbitration; sometimes, thousands of employees’ wages and working conditions would be compromised if the bias of one arbitrator undermined the process.  

Another important difference between mediation and arbitration is how the arbitrator comes to the required solution. Mediators are not required to follow or adopt the law. Arbitrators are generally required to consult the law in the given solution. Any arbitration decision cannot be contrary to the law. Otherwise, it can be appealed. While mediators are not required to take evidence or witness testimony, arbitrators must consider evidence in their decision. Thus, an arbitrator’s decision resembles that used in a court of law. Moreover, an arbitrator provides the parties with a decision and a legally developed explanation. This is something not done in mediation.  

As noted above, the parties in arbitration are required to accept the decision, which is generally considered final and cannot be appealed. This is usually but not always true. Even when the parties agree ahead of time to arbitration and agree that it is final and cannot be appealed, the law in Iowa, as well as in another state, provides that sometimes arbitration cannot be used to decide various important legal issues.    

An employment contract that states that all disputes between an employer and employee must be decided in arbitration is illegal. Why? Because the courts, in considering arbitration, believe that certain basic and important legal issues should not be decided privately by the parties because certain legal issues cannot be and should be handled by private arbitration.    

For example, the parties should not privately decide on civil rights violations in the workplace. Why? Because the state has a vested interest in knowing about these violations, which strike at the safety and fairness of the workplace. Similarly, disputes between a landlord and tenant cannot be decided privately in arbitration.    

The state has a vested interest in knowing about a violation of the housing code. Therefore, even if the parties agreed that this type of dispute would be decided in arbitration, the courts would strike down this part of the agreement. Similarly, a dispute about safety conditions in a business or violations of the environment cannot be decided in arbitration. These issues affect the public; thus, the courts reserve the right to decide these cases.    

“The parties in a contract cannot contract themselves out of code” is an established axiom in the law. As any arbitration or mediation agreement is just a contract, any issue that attempts to settle code or constitutional issues is, per se, illegal. Confronted with this restriction, the parties in dispute must settle their differences in a trial before a court of law.  

 

Attorney reviewing lawsuit paperwork

The Trial Process  

A trial can be a very interesting, exciting, and harrowing experience. Some trials, especially in small claims court, can be as short as one or two hours. Others in district court can be up to a week or more. The purpose of the trial is to use the adversarial method as a mechanism for resolving a conflict. The party has the task of going forward with its point of view of narrative and supporting it with verifiable facts and arguments based upon law. Personal remarks, retorts, jokes, and/or positions not supported by law are to be excluded from this process. Indeed, the court must exclude this to maintain a sense of its dignity as a court and the fairness of the dispute process.    

In understanding the court process, it is helpful to remember that “officers of the court” are required to assist the court in making its decisions. The most important officer of the court is the judge. In a trial before a jury, the judge has the important task of deciding which evidence is to be allowed in and presented before the jury, which will then be asked to make a judgment about the law based upon these facts. The trial is not before a jury but before the judge, who makes the final decision. In a so-called bench trial, the judge will not only decide which evidence will be allowed but will ultimately make a legal decision about the facts and then issue a decision and decision on what kind of relief, if any, should be applied.  

Another officer of the court is the bailiff. This person is entrusted with keeping the court in order, having the witness called, and helping the jury make and deliberate its final decision.  

The court reporter must make a complete record of the trial, a word-for-word record that can later be used as part of the official record of the trial. The cord will include all the testimony given by the witnesses. The objections made by each side to the evidence and the rulings made by the judge on the objections made at trial. Making the record is important because if the case is appealed, the record will provide the higher court with an official account of the judgment and evidence used at the trial to be reviewed.  

It might be surprising to learn that the attorneys in the case are also court officers. This is because the attorney rules of court or the Code of Professional Conduct in Iowa regulate their conduct. This regulatory code requires each attorney to practice candor before the court and adhere to the court rules.  

The Attorneys  

At this point in the dispute resolution process, the special skills of a lawyer are of utmost use. Indeed, some lawyers even hold themselves out as “trial lawyers,” given their specific skills in the courtroom. Each lawyer is to argue with facts in accordance with the established law.    

The facts admitted at trial may have taken a significant amount of discovery, but once the evidence is admitted into the record, each side will have full access to the information needed to argue its case. This is important in order to prevent one party from “surprising” the other party. Much time and attention are frequently needed in order to properly select which evidence is most relevant to the case and to have it admitted into the record at trial.    

At the start of the trial, each side will propose which exhibits it wants to introduce as evidence. In contrast, the other side has an opportunity to object to the exhibit for a variety of reasons, such as it cannot be verified as to its context, or it is unduly prejudicial and may be inflammatory to the court and/or the jury and thus should be thrown out.    

The Plaintiff party in Iowa uses numbers “Exhibit 1, Exhibit 2, etc., etc,” in designating its “Exhibits,” and the Responding party uses letters” Exhibit A, Exhibit B, . . .” in designating its exhibits at trial. In shorter trials, the exhibits might not exceed five or ten exhibits. In comparison, exhibits may reach up into the thousands in larger trials, particularly at the federal level and in which large corporations are involved.    

Opening Arguments  

The actual trial process is fairly basic and consists of three parts. First, opening arguments by both sides. Second, the examination of witnesses and exhibits, and third, closing arguments. The plaintiff’s side first makes an opening argument. Why? Because the plaintiff has the burden of proof in winning its case. If the plaintiff fails to prove its arguments with facts and evidence, it will invariably lose. In the opening argument.  

Opening arguments allow each side to explain to the court or jurors the case each side will present. An opening argument is not an argument in that the attorney does present the basic argument or legal conclusions each will make later in the trial. It is important to remember that making an opening argument is optional. A party can decide to wait until the end of the trial to present its argument after the facts have already been admitted and argued.  

Witnesses  

After opening arguments, evidence is presented first by the plaintiff and then by the respondent. This is done by examining witnesses and exhibits, which, once admitted by the court, is called “evidence.” There are two types of evidence: direct evidence. This is evidence that is said to speak for itself and does not require interpretation, such as eyewitness accounts, a confession, or forensic evidence such as a gun or weapon. Circumstantial evidence allows for an inference to be made, such as a connection between a bank account and a payment made and received from that account.  

In examining witnesses, different terms are used to help understand the witness testimony stage. When a witness is first examined by his or her own attorney, this is called direct examination. It is important to remember that the most that any witness can do are to answer questions about the facts of the case and that the witness is not allowed to make legal conclusions about the law.    

This is also why it is important that an attorney examining a witness not be allowed to ask leading questions or questions that attempt to provide to the witness or prompt the witness to make a legal conclusion, such as “it was the Tenant and not me the Landlord who breach the lease agreement.” This is a legal conclusion, and this is reserved for the jury or judge. If one attorney makes a leading question, it is the responsibility of the other attorney to object to it as improper and object. At this point, the judge will either uphold the question, overrule the objection, or, in the alternative, sustain the objection and strike out the question.  

After the direct examination, the opposing attorney will cross-examine the witness. This is where the opposing party’s attorney will be allowed to challenge the statements made by the witness. The purpose of this is not only to obtain a better understanding of the facts in a case.    

Cross-examination is usually also intended to challenge the witness’s credibility, who sometimes can oppose the respondent’s view, if not hostile. Cross-examination, thus, can be used to test the credibility of a witness. This is called impeachment. While generally, an attorney is not allowed to ask leading questions. If the witness is hostile or likely prejudicial to the attorney’s client, the attorney is allowed to ask leading questions.      

When direct and cross-examination are completed, each side is allowed to examine the witness further. If this occurs, this is called the re-redirect or the re-cross of the witness.  

Closing Arguments  

After all the witness testimony and evidence have been taken in by the court, the parties can present closing arguments. At this point, each attorney can make a legal conclusion based on the facts presented to the court. The plaintiff is allowed to go first; it is, again, appropriate because the plaintiff has the burden of proving the case. Once the plaintiff’s attorney presents their closing argument, the respondent is allowed to present their closing argument, also using the facts presented in the trial to make legal conclusions. Then, once this has been completed, the plaintiff’s attorney is given one last opportunity to prove the case with a rebuttal to the respondent’s closing argument.    

The Burden of Proof  

In understanding that the plaintiff has the burden of proof, it is important to remember that the burden of proof as a legal standard to decide an argument can differ depending upon the legal issue being decided. If the case is about a dispute over money or a breach of contract, this type of claim is decided using the standard per “predominance of the evidence” standard. The plaintiff must show that most of the facts (51%+) are in the plaintiff’s favor.    

If the dispute involved something more important like a violation of someone’s liberty interest, such as the liberty interest to be free from defamation, the court would use a “clear and convincing” standard. To determine which side wins their case. And if the case is involved a basic constitutional issue and will result in one party being deprived of some basic civil freedom, this will be decided according to a “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is a high standard to meet, and it is always reserved for criminal cases, which can result in one party losing their freedom to live at large in society.  

The Judgment  

Once the trial is completed, a judgment will be made based on the verdict in a jury trial or by the judge in a bench trial. In a jury trial, the judge will explain to the jury in jury instructions what it is to consider during its deliberations. This is called the charge to the jury given by the judge. It will explain the issues of the case and explain any unfamiliar terms.  

The judge will also explain the applicable standard of proof that the jury will use to decide the case. Any applicable laws will allow likely be explained. The jury is the only judge of the facts and credibility of each witness, and each jury person will need to decide based on the facts and laws as instructed by the judge. In Iowa, the law allows the attorneys for both sides to request certain instructions regarding the facts and law in the case.    

The verdict is the jury’s decision on the case. The bailiff then notifies the court that the jury has decided, and all the parties are called back into the courtroom. In a trial decided by a jury, often referred to as a bench trial, the jury is the decider of the facts, the witness credibility, and the application of the law. This type of trial has the advantage that a judge is usually considered learned in the law and thus can bring expertise to the decision that a jury might not have. A judge’s trial, however, does not have the broad source of input and diverse viewpoints that a jury brings to the decision process.    

Damages  

In civil litigation, the jury decides in part or in full for either party, and the verdict can be mixed. If a claim is recognized, the jury will give it a dollar amount. This dollar amount is referred to as damages. In civil litigation, damages are usually of four types: compensatory damages intended to make the party whole or as unharmed as before the legal problem. Expectation damages intended to place a party in the place they expected to be before the legal problem, lost profit damages intended to compensate a business when it lost expected profits from the legal problem, and finally, punitive damages intended to punish a party for intentional wrongdoing.    

Following the verdict, the judge enters a judgment which is an order placed in the public records of the clerk of courts. In civil litigation, the judge has the authority to change the number of damages or make some form of modification to the verdict prior to judgment. If the losing party does not pay the judgment, the winning party can get the sheriff to execute the judgment meaning that the clerk of court will deliver the judgment to the sheriff, who will then seize the property of the losing party and sell it to pay the amount of the judgment.  

The judgment is the final stage of the dispute resolution process unless either party believes that the judgment was not correct and wishes a higher court to review the judgment for error. It is important to understand that in an appeal of the District Court judgment done before the Iowa Court of Appeals, the appeal is not a retrial of the earlier trial.    

It is also important to know that an appeal can only be done to review any possible error of the District Court, either an error of fact or an error in understanding or applying the law. At the trial level, these errors need to be objected to on the record when they are made to be preserved for review. In Iowa, at the District Court level, notice to the parties and the Court of Appeal must be given within thirty days of the judgment. Otherwise, the party has been deemed to have waived its right of appeal.    

Posted 
January 25, 2023
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