To start a lawsuit, you must first file what is known as a complaint. A complaint is a formal document, called a pleading, that lists the reasons why you are filing a lawsuit. It also lists the facts of the case, and the cause of action - the legal reason - for your lawsuit. The person who files the complaint becomes the plaintiff, and the person, group of people or company whom the complaint is filed against is known as a defendant. Once you have written your complaint, you will need to bring it down to the courthouse to file it. Here is how to file a complaint:
Draft Your Complaint for Filing
If you haven't yet written your complaint and need help with the process, you can review "How to Write a Complaint."
Contact the Clerk of the Court
Before you bring your complaint down to the courthouse, give the clerk of the court a call (or better yet, take a trip down to the courthouse and speak to the clerk directly). Request the information you need for filing: the cost of filing your complaint, what needs to be included with your complaint, and double-check to make sure your complaint meets the court's guidelines. Remember, the clerk cannot provide you with any legal advice, so you cannot ask for what you should put in your complaint - just what the court requires to be in there for it to be accepted for filing.
Send Your Complaint Over for Filing
There are two ways to get your complaint to the courthouse for filing. If this is your first time filing a complaint, the best option is to head over to the courthouse in person. Bring with you a self-addressed, stamped envelope, your complaint, your case information sheet (CIS), and anything else required by the court for to file a complaint. Go to the clerk for the division that you will be filing your lawsuit in, and let them know you are there to file. You will need to pay a filing fee, which can range anywhere from $5 to $500, depending on the court you are filing in and the amount you are suing for. You will also need to send a copy via Certified Mail to every defendant in the case, to let them know the complaint has been filed. When the complaint has been accepted, you will receive a signed copy, along with a docket number and information about your court date in the mail, if you don't receive it from the clerk after filing.
The second way to file your complaint is by mail. This is the most convenient way to file, but if there is a problem with your complaint, it can take awhile before you are notified, which can delay your lawsuit. Usually, you can send your complaint over via Certified Mail, along with your CIS and anything else required by the court, a check for the exact amount of the filing fee, and a self-addressed, stamped envelope. You also need to send a copy to each defendant, same as if you filed in person.
When the complaint has been accepted, you will receive a signed copy, along with a civil action or docket number and information about your court date in the mail.
After You File a Complaint
If your complaint was accepted and filed, and a trial date has been set, you next enter what is called the pre-trial phase. During pre-trial, a period of time for discovery begins. Discovery refers to the phase where both the plaintiff and the defendant can request documents, medical records, financial records, and other evidence from each other that is necessary for the other side to build their case. You can compel the other party to furnish this evidence using subpoenas, send a set of questions called interrogatories, or conduct depositions to ask the other party and witnesses to testify as to what they know about the case.
To learn more about the discovery phase and what happens after you file a complaint, scroll down to the "Resources" section for some helpful links.
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