Commonly Used Terms

Courts and lawyers often use terms that have special meanings when used in the legal setting. Simple definitions of some of the most common terms are below. Additional information can be found at various websites such as or by consulting a legal dictionary.

Affidavit: A written or printed statement made under oath.

Amount in controversy: The amount of money at issue in a case.

Answer: The document that a defendant files in response to a plaintiff’s complaint.

Brief: A written statement submitted to a court that explains a party’s factual and legal arguments in support of a motion.

Civil case: A legal action where a plaintiff seeks some sort of relief from a defendant.

Civil cover sheet: A form submitted by the plaintiff along with a complaint. It asks for basic information about a case and is used for keeping track of what types of cases are filed in federal court.

Costs: Money a court may award to a party who wins a lawsuit for expenses incurred by the winning party during the lawsuit for things such as filing fees, service of a summons or subpoena, court reporters, or witnesses. See 28 U.S.C. § 1920.

Complaint: A written statement filed by the plaintiff to begin a lawsuit. In this document, the plaintiff outlines his case and states what he would like to happen.

Consent/Refusal to Proceed Before U.S. Magistrate Judge: A form on which a party states whether he authorizes a United States Magistrate Judge to be the judge in the case. If all parties consent, the magistrate judge will handle all aspects of the case, including a jury trial, if necessary. If even one party does not consent to have a magistrate judge handle the case, the case will be handled by a district judge.

Damages: Money that a defendant pays a plaintiff in a civil case if the plaintiff has won. Damages may be compensatory (to compensate for a loss or injury) or punitive (to punish or deter future misconduct).

Default judgment: Judgment entered in favor of the plaintiff and against a defendant when the defendant fails to answer or respond to a complaint.

Defendant: In a civil case, this is the party being sued by the plaintiff.

Deposition: A part of discovery where a witness or party answers questions under oath. Generally, this happens in-person, and although similar to testifying in court, this generally takes place in a lawyer’s office.

Discovery: The phase of a civil case where each party collects information about the case from the other side. It may also refer to the actual information collected during this process, which may include copies of documents, written answers to questions, or depositions.

Dispositive motion: A motion that, if granted, would end a portion of a case or end an entire case. Examples include a motion to dismiss or a motion for summary judgment.

District court: The court in the federal system where most actions start. The District Court for the Middle District of Alabama is a district court.

District judge: A federal judge appointed to serve for life by the President and confirmed by the Senate to serve in a district court under Article III of the Constitution.

Docket: A brief written chronological list of what has happened in a case that is maintained by the Clerk of Court.

In Forma Pauperis (IFP): Latin phrase meaning “as a poor person.” It is used when a party cannot afford to pay the filing fee to start a civil suit and therefore asks the court for permission to proceed “as a poor person” and not require him to pay the fee in advance. A person wishing to proceed in forma pauperis must complete this district’s “Petition and Affidavit to Proceed Without Prepayment of Fees and/or Costs,” which is available on the court’s website or from the Clerk of Court’s office. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915.

Interrogatory: One party’s written question to another party that is asked as part of discovery.

Judgment: The final action by the court that ends a case in a district court.

Jurisdiction: The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a certain type of case. It also is used as a synonym for venue, meaning the geographic area over which the court has territorial jurisdiction to decide cases.

Litigant: A party to a lawsuit.

Local Rules: Rules that apply to cases brought in a specific court. Often abbreviated L.R.

Magistrate judge: A federal judge appointed by the judges in a district court who may oversee all aspects of a civil case if the parties consent.

Mediation: A process where the parties meet with a neutral third party (sometimes a magistrate judge) in an effort to reach a mutually agreeable settlement of the case.

Motion: A request by a litigant to a judge for a decision on an issue relating to the case.

Movant: The party that files a motion.

Order: The court’s command to a party, decision on a motion, or resolution of an issue in the case.

Party: The plaintiff or the defendant in a lawsuit.

Plaintiff: The party that starts a civil lawsuit by filing a complaint.

Pleadings: Written statements filed with the court that describe a party’s legal or factual assertions about the case. Pleadings may include a complaint, an answer, a motion, or a brief.

Prejudice: Motions or cases can be resolved with or without prejudice. If “with prejudice,” the case or motion cannot be filed again. If “without prejudice,” the case or motion might be able to be re-filed at a later time.

Pro bono: Phrase commonly used to refer to when a lawyer represents a person for free.

Pro se: Phrase commonly used to refer to litigants who are representing themselves, and not using an attorney.

Relief: What a party seeks either in a lawsuit or in a particular motion.

Reply: A movant’s submission following the other party’s response to a motion. When a motion is filed, the movant may submit a brief in support. The other party will be able to submit a response. The movant will then be able to reply. The court will then decide the motion.

Response: A submission made by a party in opposition to a motion. When a motion is filed, the movant may submit a brief in support. The other party will be able to submit a response. The movant will then be able to reply. The court will then decide the motion.

Scheduling conference: A meeting with the court involving any attorneys who represent parties in action, as well as any pro se parties, to discuss how the case will proceed. The court decides whether any conference will be held in person or by telephone.

Service of process: The act of formally providing the defendant with a copy of a summons and a copy of the complaint to inform him of the lawsuit against him.

Settlement: Parties to a lawsuit resolve their dispute without having a trial. Settlements often involve the payment of compensation by one party in at least partial satisfaction of the other party's claims, but usually do not include the admission of fault.

Statute of limitations: The time within which a lawsuit must be filed or a criminal prosecution begun. The deadline can vary, depending on the type of case.

Subpoena: A command, issued under a court's authority, to a witness to appear and give testimony or to produce certain documents.

Summons: A form prepared by the plaintiff and issued by a court that informs the defendant that he or she has been sued.

Summary judgment: A decision made on the basis of statements and evidence presented for the record without a trial. It is used when it is not necessary to resolve any factual disputes in the case. Summary judgment is granted when – on the undisputed facts in the record – one party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Text-Only Order: An order entered by a judge that appears only on the docket and is not accompanied by a longer formal written order. These orders are generally short and for minor matters. In the Alabama Middle District, a case with a pro se party generally will not have text-only orders.

Waiver of service: A process where a defendant may agree that a plaintiff will not have to formally serve him with a summons and a copy of the complaint.