Legal Self Defense - Civil Lawsuits - The Complaint

in law •  2 years ago

To file a civil lawsuit you need to file a Complaint in a court that can hear it and serve the issued summons upon each party you are bringing suit against.



This is part of my Legal Self Defense series, designed to provide those who went to public school with a short, concise, easy to digest overview of how to access the law. For more information, see the introduction.

What is the Complaint?

The complaint itself is part of the pleadings of a case, which are used to state the basic positions of all parties so that everyone (including the court) knows what the case is about. This was talked about briefly in my overview of civil process.

In the complaint, you need to do the following:

  1. Note the court, plaintiff, and defendant
  2. Establish the jurisdiction of the court.
  3. Specify the facts that, if proven, will show you have a valid right to sue.
  4. If needed, cite any controlling law (done via memorandum, which I'll cover later in this series).

The form of the complaint

The form of your complaint will depend upon the court that you file it in. I highly recommend that you get a copy of the following documents if possible:

  • Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Rules of Evidence
  • Your State (and local) Rules of Civil Procedure and Rules of Evidence
  • Your State Rules of Court

If they are too expensive, you might consider:

  • Asking your local librarian to try and get copies of at least the federal rules
  • Check your local courthouse, if they have a law library
  • Ask a lawyer you are on good terms with if you could look at their current copy or buy an older copy off of them

If you are just researching how the law works, please note:

  • Older versions are generally cheaper and work just fine to see how things work
  • Federal rules are typically cheaper and very similar to the state rules in each state. You can get the federal rules for well under $100 while many state rules now cost hundreds of dollars (they used to be cheap too...).

Framing Your Case

Like a blueprint details what is needed to build a structure, your complaint should detail everything you need win your case.

Additionally, and importantly, it should not contain anything that is not necessary to win your case.

The Complaint will detail:

  • Which court the case will be heard in
  • Who all of the parties are
  • The case number (filled in by the clerk)
  • The title - COMPLAINT
  • The introduction - explaining very briefly what the case is about
  • All jurisdictional allegations - show the court has the right to hear the case
  • All factual allegations - show that you have the right to sue and what facts you need to prove in order to win
  • Potentially have attached documents (memorandum) to cite controlling case law

The Header

Here is an example of the header of a complaint taken from a real cause of action written by a lawyer:



Notice that this establishes the parties, the court, the case number (filled by the clerk once issued), and the fact that it is a complaint.

Following that, you need to briefly state what the lawsuit is about.

The Summary

This simply restates who the plaintiff is, whether an attorney is being used or not, and who the defendants are. Typically, it will look like:

Plaintiff, David Damaged sues Defendant Mark Meany for money damages and states:

That is all the introduction typically is. Obviously, if there are more defendants, they should all be named.

If you have hired an lawyer to represent you (bad idea if you are trying to sue the state), then the structure will look more like:

Plaintiff, David Damaged, by and through his undersigned counsel, sues Defendant Mark Meany for money damages and states:

Pretty simple stuff.

On to establishing the jurisdiction of the court.

Jurisdictional Allegations

Here, you state in numbered paragraphs the facts that show the court has both personal (sometimes called in personam) jurisdiction and subject matter jurisdiction.

Normally, it will have a centered bold title (as seen above for COMPLAINT) and then start listing the facts that establish jurisdiction, looking like the following:

JURISDICTIONAL ALLEGATIONS
  1. At all times material to this lawsuit, David Damaged was a resident of Whatcom County, Washington
  2. At all times material to this lawsuit, Mark Meaning was a resident of Whatcom County, Washington
  3. This is an action for money damages under $10,000
  4. All acts necessary to the bringing of this lawsuit occurred in Whatcom County, Washington
  5. This Court has jurisdiction

As you can see, the purpose of this section of the complaint is to show that the court you are filing your complaint in has jurisdiction.

Item (3) above would be necessary for courts that are limited by the money damages being sought. In this case, the court to be filed in is probably a lower court that can only hear cases up to $10,000.


Now, you need to state the facts needed to be proven in your case.


Factual Allegations

Remember from The Right To Sue that these will be facts to prove all elements of all causes of actions in your case.

Additionally, for each cause of action you need to include a wherefore clause, which simply states what you are seeking in restitution for the damages caused to you.

The numbering on the lists of facts should continue from the numbering in your jurisdictional allegations. No two numbered paragraphs in your complaint should have the same number preceding them.

One cause of action

If your case has a single cause of action, then you can simply state all facts in the Factual Allegations clause, which might look like the following for assault, which has 5 essential elements:

  • An intentional threat or force directed at another, whether any injury was caused or not.
  • The threat was not lawful (e.g. no authority and/or not agreed to)
  • The threat created a reasonable fear that you were in peril
  • The defendant seemed to have the ability to back up the threat
  • Plaintiff suffered damages as a direct result of the threat
FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS
  1. On 12 July 2016 Defendant raised his fist and threated to punch Plaintiff in the face
  2. Plaintiff had no right to punch or threaten Defendant
  3. Plaintiff feared Defendant would attack him
  4. Defendant and Plaintiff stood one foot apart
  5. As a direct and proximate result, Plaintiff stepped backwards to avoid being punched and tripped
  6. Plaintiff broke his leg when he tripped
  7. Plaintiff suffered money damages for medical help
  8. Plaintiff suffered money damages in the form of lost wages

WHEREFORE Joe Doe demands judgment for money damages against Perry Puncher to cover medical bills and lost wages, together with such other and further relief as the Court may need reasonable and just under the circumstances.

The main thing when stating your factual allegations is to keep your sentences short and concise. This is because the defendant must, in their response, admit, deny, or state that they are without knowledge of each numbered paragraph.

See the right to sue article in this series for more on why you should use short simple sentences in your factual allegations.

Multiple causes of action

If you have multiple causes of action, you should start your factual allegations by stating facts relevant to any two or more of your causes of action and then list your causes of action as separate counts, referencing your general allegations and stating any further facts that need to be proved to establish the cause of action.

GENERAL FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS
  1. On 12 July 2016 Defendant raised his fist and threated to punch Plaintif in the face
  2. Plaintiff had no right to punch or threaten Defendant
  3. Plaintiff suffered money damages for medical help
  4. Plaintiff suffered money damages in the form of lost wages
COUNT ONE: ASSAULT
  1. Plaintiff realleges and restates the foregoing jurisdictional allegations and general factual allegations.
  2. Defendant and Plaintiff stood within easy reach of each other.
  3. As a direct and proximate result, Plaintiff stepped backwards to avoid being punched and tripped
  4. Plaintiff broke his leg when he tripped

WHEREFORE Joe Doe demands judgment for money damages against Marc Meany, together with such other and further relief as the Court may deem reasonable and just under the circumstances.

COUNT TWO: BATTERY

  1. Plaintiff realleges and restates the foregoing jurisdictional allegations and general factual allegations.
  2. Defendant kicked Plaintiff while Plaintiff was on the ground
  3. Two of Plaintiffs ribs were broken as a direct and proximate result of Defendants kick.

WHEREFORE Joe Doe demands judgment for money damages against Marc Meany, together with such other and further relief as the Court may deem reasonable and just under the circumstances.

Notice the following:

  • For each cause of action you need to reallege and restate each jurisdictional and general factual allegation, whether directly or by reference.
  • For each cause of action you need to include the remedy you seek.
  • No numbered facts should have the same number. Because I'm using html lists, they do. However, items under General Factual Allegations should start with the number after the last jurisdictional allegation and items under each count should continue from where the last section ended.

You could, instead, state each general factual allegation within each cause of action (count).

Unless the defendant is lying or was blacked out, they will probably admit at least five of the above factual allegations and claim to be without knowledge for most of the rest. This lets you then focus the discovery segment of your lawsuit on just those facts that are either denied or claimed to be outside of the defendants knowledge.

As noted in the right to sue:

  • Use simple sentences
  • Avoid stating things that have no bearing on the case

This forces the defendant to admit many more things that if you were to combine a bunch of facts into a single sentence because they can rightfully claim without knowledge if any part of an alleged fact is not within their knowledge. The same for their ability to say denied.


After the factual allegations, you should sign your complaint and print your name below your signature. As always, check your local rules of procedure for any guidelines.


To give your claim more weight, you can (and probably should) include a verification block, making yourself liable for perjury if any of the facts stated are false.

If you do this, then the title of your complaint should change from COMPLAINT to VERIFIED COMPLAINT and you will need to have a notary sign your complaint.

The verification section will have VERIFICATION centered above it and include statements establishing that:

  • you are the plaintiff
  • each fact alleged in the complaint is true and correct of your own personal knowledge

This section should be signed by you and a notary public.

Be careful not to use a verified complaint if the facts you state are NOT true and correct of your own knowledge, but rather things that you believe to be true and will need to prove during the discovery process.


That's it.

If you want to see some real complaints, do a search of google images for civil complaint form.

I find it interesting to look over different complaints as doing so makes it easier to see how to do things properly in different scenarios.

I also find it worth noting that many lawyers use long, convoluted sentences in their factual allegations when it makes a lot more sense to use the simplest sentences possible.


Serving a summons and Certifying Service

Once your complaint has been filed with the court, the court should issue you a summons which you will then need to serve upon all defendants.

Once you have served all defendants you should file a certificate of service with the court.

If you have hired a lawyer to represent you, they will do that for you.

If you have hired a lawyer to provide counsel, they should be able to show you how to do this.

If you are going it on your own, check your local court rules and check google images for certificate of service examples.

Basically, a certificate of service is simply a notary witnessed document stating under penalty of perjury that you have served the other parties according to lawful process.

The certificate of service is needed to ensure that all parties know what is going on and that one party cannot just claim to have served a document to the other parties without actually doing so.

Available methods of lawful service depend on jurisdiction but typically include having papers served by a sheriff, having papers served by a process server, and a variety of other methods. Check your local rules or use the local sheriffs department.


Once service is completed it becomes time for any and all defendants to either respond with a document called an Answer or to file one of various Motions in an attempt to avoid having to file an Answer.


If you use a lawyer:

If you are suing someone, or being sued, for the first time and the lawsuit does not include a government entity as one of the parties, I strongly recommend hiring a competent lawyer as counsel to help you make sure that you file everything needed properly. Even if this is not your first rodeo, it can be a great help to have a good lawyer look over what you are doing and help you to make sure that you file everything properly. Just remember that they are agents of the state... so if your beef is with a government then you might well be better off without a lawyer.

Of course, when choosing a lawyer, it is a good idea to use one referred to you and to make sure that they have a strong winning record in civil court.

Additionally:

  • Make sure to look at the complaint before it is filed and served
  • Make sure that your complaint uses simple sentences for the allegations
  • Make sure that your complaint does not include things that have nothing to do with the causes of action stated
  • Make sure that your complaint has actually stated all of the facts needing to be proved for each cause of action

You are paying them too much not to keep an eye on what they are doing. Make sure you get your monies worth!


Disclaimers

  • I am not a lawyer.
  • This is not legal advice, it is simply my understanding of how a complaint works in civil process, shared for those interested in such things.
  • Use this information at your own peril.
  • Be sure to prove what I say to yourself before using it.

About this article

This is part of my Legal Self Defense series. Read the introduction for more information.

If you like what you see, you can browse other articles by clicking my name below. If you are interested in seeing this series as it is published, be sure to follow me and check your Feed tab to see articles from those you follow.

If you have questions, notes on anything that is factually wrong with this article, tips that I haven't noted, etc. be sure to leave a comment!

Be well! @tony.jennings

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