By Jedidiah McKeehan
One term that you may have heard an attorney use is the term, “pleading.” What in the world is a pleading? Is a pleading a good thing? Is it a bad thing? Is it public record? Is it some secret document?
If I take off my lawyer hat and think about the term, “pleading,” what comes to mind is me as a kid on my hands and knees “pleading” for my parents not to make me eat peas or “pleading” with them not to punish me for jumping on my bed. Well, the legal definition is a little bit different.
A pleading is defined as: a formal document in which a party to a legal proceeding sets forth or responds to allegations, claims, denials or defenses.
In laymen’s terms, that means that if there is a case with the court going on, pleadings is a general term for the documents filed with the court.
The pleading that starts a case is the complaint. Whether you have a personal injury case, a divorce, or a contract dispute, a complaint is the first pleading filed in a case. The complaint is usually responded to by the defendant with an answer. The answer is also a pleading.
If an attorney gets involved in a case after someone has had a previous attorney, they may say something to the client like, “can you get me a copy of all of the pleadings?” While that may sound bizarre, that means, get me a copy of all of the documents filed with the court.
In a criminal case, if the defendant agrees on what should happen with his criminal charge, he will enter a, “plea.” It usually goes something like this:
Judge: Mr. Smith, you have been charged with theft, how do you plea?
Mr. Smith: I plead guilty, Your Honor.
Mr. Smith’s attorney: Your Honor, as part of his plea agreement, the district attorney’s office has agreed that he shall serve his sentence on probation and shall pay restitution and court costs.
Judge: I accept your plea of guilty and approve your plea agreement.
So in the above situation, the defendant has just entered a plea with the court as part of his plea agreement. That plea agreement will be memorialized in a pleading signed by the judge and entered with the court.
Some cases have lots and lots of pleadings and some barely have any. Civil cases typically have more pleadings in them than criminal cases.
Those pleadings are kept at the courthouse. Once cases are over, and time has passed (usually years, if not decades), then the pleadings in a file may be moved to storage, but my understanding is that the pleadings in every case ever are kept in some form indefinitely.
Pleadings in a case are public record, even a divorce case. If you want to go down to the courthouse and look through court files, you absolutely may do so. Typically, the only exception to this is cases where the file is sealed and those cases involving minor children.
While pleading may be an unusual term, there is nothing bad or scary about it. It is simply the catch-all term for the documents filed in a legal proceeding.
Jedidiah McKeehan is an attorney practicing in Knox County and surrounding counties. He works in many areas, including divorce, custody, criminal, personal injury, and estate planning. Visit attorney-knoxville.com for more information about this legal issue and other legal issues.