Perhaps the first question to ask yourself is whether you have any legal basis for filing a lawsuit. Most people come to us without knowing the answer. People are often surprised by the idea that they may not really have a case. To clarify, let’s explore a few basic principles about how our legal system works.
We read about lawsuits all the time, and it is easy to get the impression that any time something bad happens, it could potentially lead to a lawsuit. That is not really the way it works. Just because you have been wronged in some way, you can’t go and file a lawsuit. You must have a claim that the courts will recognize as a matter of law, where your unique factual situation will have a legal solution. In other words, in order to bring a lawsuit successfully, it must have a good foundation and a solution in both fact and law.
Let’s start with the law. When lawyers talk about whether you have a claim, they are thinking about how you will get in front of the court, stay there, and ultimately win.
You may have the right to sue under a statute. Statutory laws are passed by the federal or state legislature, and give individual citizens the right to sue for various wrongs. Common examples include:
• The right, under certain circumstances, to sue state government workers for violating constitutional rights under a federal statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, referred to as “section 1983”;
• The right to sue your employer for discrimination because you are a member of a protected class (your race, color, religion, sex, national origin) under a federal law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964;
• The right to file suit if your employer fails to accommodate your known disability, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
All types of claims have their own rules for how they have to be proved. This is where the facts come into play. For most claims, the Plaintiff, which will be you, has to be able to prove each “element” of the claim. You could have a claim that fits one of these laws, but it is only worth pursuing if your facts can prove every single element of the claim.
You also have to consider how much time has passed since the incident. Deadlines (usually called statutes of limitations) mean you usually don’t have unlimited time to bring your claim. For instance, you may have only 180 days to file an employment discrimination complaint with the EEOC.
Figuring out whether you have a good claim is a complicated question requiring legal expertise. A consultation with a lawyer can help you answer this question. A lawyer can often help identify potential claims and whether those claims could form the basis of a lawsuit. Usually, a lawyer will only try to answer this question for certain types of cases. Even the lawyer may have to do a thorough analysis of the facts and the law in your potential case. So that is the first step—figuring out if you have a good claim.
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