By Attorney Edward Jesson
A Sheriff’s deputy has just showed up at your door and handed you a summons. Or you received a summons via FedEx or Certified Mail. Do you need to hire a lawyer to move forward with things? This is highly dependent on a lot of things, but often most importantly, whether the Defendant that has been sued is an individual or a business entity.
In North Carolina, an individual has the right to represent his or herself. So, if you have been sued in your individual capacity you have the right to represent yourself in court. This is known as proceeding pro se. Sometimes we even recommend our clients proceed pro se. For example, if an individual has been sued in small claims court for a small amount of money, often times the legal fees that might be incurred in defending that small claims action would exceed the damages that were being claimed. Moreover, small claims court is fairly well designed for those who wish to proceed pro se with a lot of the formalities that are present in District and Superior Court being relaxed.
However, if the summons is for District or Superior Court, while an individual is still permitted to represent themselves in those proceedings, generally we would advise against that. In District and Superior Court the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, the North Carolina Rules of Evidence, and applicable Local Rules, and various other rules and regulations apply. The majority of the time we find that individuals proceeding pro se end up getting tripped up by these rules—often with serious long lasting financial consequences.
However, things are much different if the Defendant being sued is a business entity such as a corporation or a limited liability company. In North Carolina a business entity cannot represent itself nor can a member or owner of the business represent the business in court unless that individual is an attorney licensed to practice law in North Carolina (or has been admitted to practice in North Carolina on another basis).
If a business owner (that is not permitted to practice law in North Carolina) files a response on behalf of the business that they own, they are engaging in the unlicensed practice of law which is a Class 1 Misdemeanor in North Carolina. Any documents filed by an unlicensed attorney could be stricken by the Court which could result in a judgment being entered against the Defendant, even though the Defendant may have thought that they properly responded. Repeated violations of the law could result in financial sanctions being awarded by the Court or injunctions being sought by the local district attorney.
Generally speaking, if you receive a summons, regardless of what it is, it is in your best interest to at least consult with an attorney to see what your options are. Depending on the situation, it may be advisable to move forward and represent yourself. However, in a lot of circumstances the litigation can be a mine field for those who are not used to appearing in court on a regular basis.
If you receive a summons, or have any other questions about the litigation process, the attorneys at Jesson & Rains are ready to help.
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Kelly Rains Jesson