How to Exercise Your Rights and Resolve Disputes

Guide to Exercising and Enforcing Your Legal Rights and Resolving Disputes in the U.S.


An unfortunate reality of life is that we all have our rights violated sometimes, whether in a major way or a minor way. Or we get into disputes, whether over a contract, or with a neighbor. Depending on what it’s related to – such as consumer rights, civil rights, etc. – your options and strategies for exercising and enforcing your rights will vary.

If you own a business and have a business dispute, see our Guide to Business Disputes.

Here’s a general overview of potential courses of legal action to take. But before you exercise your rights, you need to know what your rights are! So be sure to check out our Legal Guides to read up on your rights and obligations.

How can I enforce my rights or resolve a dispute?

It depends on the context, and the specific laws at issue. One or more of the following may be viable options for getting what you legally deserve or to resolve a dispute:

  • File a standard lawsuit (or threaten to)
  • File a lawsuit in small claims court
  • File or join a class action lawsuit
  • Engage in alternative dispute resolution, including arbitration and/or mediation
  • Contact or file a claim with a relevant government agency (e.g. Department of Justice)
  • Press charges (for crimes against you)
  • Employ strategic means to encourage or pressure the other party to voluntarily meet their obligations to you (e.g. a public relations/media campaign to put the spotlight on a company’s problematic actions)

One or more of these options may make more sense for your situation than the others, so you should be sure to discuss with a lawyer.

Should I file a standard lawsuit?

Filing a lawsuit, or initiating litigation should generally be a method of last resort for exercising your rights or resolving a dispute. Lawsuits are generally quite expensive and time-consuming. Another drawback is the lack of privacy, as most of the filings and proceedings are public record. Thus, it may be best to start with one or more of the other methods of exercising your rights.

Before actually filing the papers for a lawsuit, you would generally want to let the other party know that you are considering doing so. The mere threat of a lawsuit can often encourage the other side to give you what you want.

That said, taking someone to court is often the only way they will comply with the law and do what they are supposed to do, whether that involves paying you money or refraining from taking a harmful action towards you.

Most often, you do not need to proceed all the way through the litigation to get a court decision. Most cases settle out of court, meaning that the parties make a settlement agreement, which usually involves a certain amount of money.

Should I file in small claims court?

If your claim against someone involves a relatively small amount of money, then it usually makes sense to file in small claims court rather than standard court. Each state sets its own limits for how much you can sue for in small claims court, but the range is generally $5,000 to $25,000. Small claims court is generally a relatively speedier and easier process.

For California residents, check out our Guide to California Small Claims Court.

Should I file or join a class action lawsuit?

If you are one of a group of people whose rights have been similarly violated by the same person or company, you may want to talk to a lawyer about a class action lawsuit. This often applies in the context of consumers or employees. See our Guide to Class Actions.

Should I do mediation or arbitration?

Mediation may be a good option to start with before going straight to court. This would involve engaging the services of a mediator or third-party neutral to help reach an agreement with the other party.

Arbitration is a form of resolving disputes outside of court, in which an arbitrator (kind of like a judge) issues a binding decision on the parties. It is often required to go to arbitration rather than court, as many consumer contracts, employment agreements, and many other transactions involve a mandatory arbitration agreement. See our Guide to Arbitration for more.

Should I contact a government agency?

Some government agencies are able to step in and help you exercise your rights. For example, if you have a consumer dispute, you can contact your local or state department of consumer affairs.

Should I press criminal charges?

If someone has committed a criminal act against you, such as physical violence or theft, you should contact the police and/or district attorney and press charges against that person. See our Guide to Victims Rights.

What other actions can I take?

If you are in a position which the general public may sympathize with, you may want to tell your story to the media. A good story telling your side of the story may put enough pressure on the other party to bow to public pressure.

You may also try using FairShake, which can help you with claims against certain companies.

What do I do if I’m being sued?

See our guide Help! I’m Being Sued

Further Resources

Guide to Business Disputes

For help in moving forward with any of the above courses of action, contact a lawyer.

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