Drafting a Complaint or a Civil Lawsuit

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Overview of a Complaint

A civil lawsuit begins when the plaintiff files a complaint with an appropriate court. A complaint is a formal, written statement in which the plaintiff describes, in summary fashion, what the dispute is about, and what the plaintiff wants the court do. The plaintiff spells out her version of what happened to cause the dispute statements called allegations, which are organized in numbered paragraphs so it can easily be referred to by both parties in subsequent court papers. Customarily, the complaint is also divided into separate sections, or counts, for each separate cause of action being asserted.


The court file is the official record of the case kept by the clerk of the court. The clerk keeps a separate file for each case, and every important event in the lawsuit must be recorded in the file. The importance of this file cannot be overstated. The court file is the single permanent and complete record of everything that has happened in the case, the record that all participants rely on. From the judge's standpoint, the court file is the case - the judge will usually refuse to consider any papers that are not part of this file.

Most courts specify a number of mechanical details that parties must follow in preparing a court paper. Some of the common considerations follow:
  1. Size, weight, and type of paper. The rules of most courts place limits on the types of paper that are acceptable. The clerk's job of segregating papers into the correct files, and of microfilming or electronically imaging papers for archiving can be carried out more efficiently if the items being processed are uniform.
  2. Whether line-numbered paper should be used. Traditionally, court papers were prepared on "pleading paper," which has line numbers pre-printed along the left margin. Many courts no longer require it, although many law firms continue to use it. Word processing programs number lines automatically.
  3. Margins. Again, uniformity is the goal. Court clerks tend to be particularly fussy about the top margin on the first page, which many courts require to be several inches wide to provide room for the clerk's stamps.
  4. Font, type size, line spacing, and length limits. Many courts specify a minimum type-size, and most require court papers to be double-spaced. This is done mainly to ensure readability, especially after copies have been made. Some courts specify the font (the design of the individual letters) to be used. Even if the rules are silent, stick with a widely used font such as Courier. This is not a good place to show off your computer's font-making versatility.

    Courts commonly place limits on the overall length of court papers-for example, limiting motions to no more than fifteen pages. Resist the temptation to get more words into the same number of pages by using a different or smaller type or by "fudging" the margins.
  5. Backings. Some courts require court papers to be prepared with a colored backing, which serves as a visible separator between papers in the file.
  6. Other details not covered by the rules. Many other formal details, although not specifically covered by the rules, are the subject of such long-standing custom that failure to observe them will instantly be noticed. These include such minutiae as the wording of the name of the court; whether to use parentheses or colons to make the vertical line down the middle of the caption; whether various parts are indented or kept on the left margin; and how many spaces to indent paragraphs.

The complaint opens with the caption, which serves as a kind of "title page." The space for the case number is left blank; the clerk of the court will assign a number when the complaint is filed. Some local rules require that the type of case, whether it is subject to arbitration, or whether a jury trial is demanded, be included in the caption.


Following the caption is the preamble (also called a jurisdictional statement), which is an introductory paragraph or phrase, such as "Plaintiff alleges." Federal court rules require that this jurisdictional statement tell the court specifically the grounds for its jurisdiction. The body of the complaint begins with a statement of the grounds upon which the court's jurisdiction is based and an identification of the parties and their residences. In the remainder of the body of the complaint, the plaintiff must state her claim, showing why she is entitled to relief. To do this, the plaintiff must give a short summary of the facts of her case and state the particular facts necessary to establish each element of each cause of action. This is best done by first telling what happened in a section called "General Allegations"; then, in separate counts, establishing the elements for each cause of action.


In the "General Allegations" section, the plaintiff simply tells her story in the most convincing way she can. This section is usually a page or two in length and represents a golden opportunity for the plaintiff to begin persuading the judge of the rightness of her cause. This narrative should, at a minimum, include the dates on which the main events happened, the places where the events happened, the main "bad acts" of the defendant, a description of how the plaintiff suffered losses, and how those losses were caused by the defendants conduct. The narrative should be in chronological order and should include enough factual detail to make the sequence of events easy to follow.

At the time an attorney drafts a complaint, she usually does not have all of the facts. A standard shorthand phrase that is used to identify a fact as one that is likely to have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for discovery is "upon information and belief."

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