What Is a Complaint?

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 What Is a Complaint?

A complaint is a legal document filed with a civil court to begin a civil lawsuit in which one person sues another. The person who files a complaint is called the “plaintiff” in legal terminology. The person or entity, e.g., a business, that is named as the party who has wronged the plaintiff is the “defendant.” The defendant has to defend itself against the plaintiff’s allegations in the complaint.

A complaint could refer to the first step in a divorce proceeding, a personal injury lawsuit, a trust or estate dispute, a breach of contract case, or any other potential legal causes of action.

A complaint is a technical legal document, and attorneys carefully draft complaints because they are the foundation for a plaintiff’s legal action. Complaints list the plaintiff’s grievances and the relief or remedy that the plaintiff seeks, usually an award of monetary damages or possibly the performance of a contract. The complaint states that the plaintiff must prove to win the remedy if there is a trial.

What Is Done with a Complaint?

The complaint must first be filed with the court clerk in which the plaintiff wants to prosecute their case. When drafting a complaint, a plaintiff must decide in which court they want to file it. One important consideration in this regard is the amount of controversy. This is a technical legal term for the amount at stake in a lawsuit. Generally, a person who wants to file a lawsuit in a particular court must sue for damages in a certain minimum amount or an amount below a certain maximum if they want to file in a particular court.

For example, in California, an individual who wants to file a lawsuit seeking $10,000 or less can file in a small claims court. There are certain advantages to filing in small claims courts, e.g., a person does not need to have a lawyer in small claims court. If a plaintiff is a business, it can file in small claims court for $5,000 or less.

In California, if a person wants to sue for more than $10,000 but less than $25,000, they would file their complaint in a California Superior Court of “Limited Jurisdiction.” Again, there are certain advantages to proceeding in a Superior Court of Limited Jurisdiction. The process is simplified, and cases proceed more speedily.

Lawsuits in which the amount in controversy is over $25,000 in a California Superior Court of general jurisdiction. In the federal civil courts, the amount in controversy must exceed $75,000.

A person who drafts a complaint must consider the amount of controversy and the court in which they may wish to file their complaint when they prepare it. They want to prepare it in such a way that it justifies the amount of controversy requirement of the court in which they want to file and prosecute their lawsuit.

What Happens When a Complaint Is Filed?

When a complaint is filed, the court clerk issues a summons. This is another technical legal document. Its purpose is to notify the defendant named in the complaint that they have been sued. It informs the defendant of the court in which the complaint has been filed, the names of the parties to the case, and the names of the plaintiff’s attorney if an attorney represents the plaintiff.

The summons and complaint must then be “served” on the defendant. To “serve” a complaint and summons means that a person who is a process server personally delivers it to the defendant. A process server is a professional used for the job to ensure that service is completed in a way that complies with all of the applicable rules.

The rules of civil procedure for each state outline the particular rules regarding service of process in the state, and in federal courts, federal rules apply. The complaint should be handed directly to the defendant once the process server has verified the defendant’s identity.

If repeated attempts to serve the defendant are unsuccessful, some states allow for mailed service, service to another member of a household or business, or posting service to a defendant’s residence.

What Are the Typical Responses to a Complaint?

The defendant is notified of the timeframe within which they must file an answer, another technical legal document just like a complaint. A defendant usually has 30 days from the date the complaint is filed to file their answer and send a copy to the plaintiff.

The defendant’s attorney answers appropriately based on the merits of the plaintiff’s case. The answer would include any affirmative defenses that the defendant may have to the allegations in the complaint.

For example, if the plaintiff alleges that a medication prescribed for them was defective and caused them injury for which, the defendant manufacturer of the medication must pay damages. The defendant might plead the defense of assumption of the risk in their answer, claiming that the plaintiff knew of the risks and chose to take the medication anyways, thereby assuming the risk.

Can the Defendant File a Complaint against the Plaintiff?

In addition to alleging affirmative defenses, the defendant can file a counterclaim against the plaintiff. As part of their answer to the plaintiff’s complaint, a defendant can include their own claims against the plaintiff. If the defendant includes a counterclaim in their answer, the plaintiff must file their answer to it, alleging any affirmative defenses they may have to the counterclaim. The defendant bears the burden of proof on the counterclaims against the plaintiff.

There are two kinds of counterclaims, permissive and compulsory. A compulsory counterclaim will nullify the plaintiff’s claim if the defendant successfully proves it. If a defendant does not raise a compulsory counterclaim in the lawsuit, they cannot sue the plaintiff based on the counterclaim later in a separate lawsuit.

Under federal law, defendants must raise any claims against any parties already to a lawsuit if the claim arises out of the same circumstance that gave rise to one of the plaintiff’s claims.

Permissive counterclaims relate to circumstances that may be completely unrelated to the plaintiff’s claims. This allows parties to settle disputes or conflicts in one lawsuit. Again, the rules of civil procedure allow this but do not require it.

If the defendants’ counterclaims address the same issues of fact as the plaintiff’s claims, courts usually address the claims and counterclaims simultaneously. If the counterclaims involve issues or facts unrelated to the issues raised by the original plaintiff’s complaint, the court may choose to deal with them separately.

After the defendant files their answer, the discovery phase of a lawsuit begins. Through the discovery process, the parties identify the evidence in the case and become familiar with what it shows about their respective positions. Based on the evidence discovered, the parties may start to negotiate a settlement. Or they may realize that they need to change the complaint or the answer.

Can a Complaint or Answer Be Amended After They Have Been Filed with the Court?

Both complaints and answers can be amended or changed. There are rules as to whether a plaintiff or defendant must seek the permission of the court to amend. In federal court, a plaintiff can file an amended complaint, i.e., a written revision of the original complaint, within 21 days of serving the original complaint or at any time before the defendant answers the complaint. Otherwise, the plaintiff must request permission from the court to amend the complaint.

It is also possible for a defendant to amend, or change, an answer. Defendants would usually do this to change the facts they allege, perhaps because they become aware of evidence that shows that the facts are different than they originally thought. Or they may want to add or delete affirmative defenses again because they become aware of new facts.

In most courts, depending on the case stage, a defendant may have a right to amend their answer. Or, the parties may agree that a defendant can amend their answer. Or they may have to ask the court for permission to amend. The rules of civil procedure of the court where the case is pending would guide the issue.

How Much Does it Cost to File a Complaint?

The cost of filing a complaint depends partly on the court in which a person files it. As noted above, there are federal civil courts in the U.S. and state civil courts in each state. In addition, in the states, there are different levels of courts. These levels are differentiated by the amount of money at stake in the cases filed and other factors.

Many complaints and fees vary widely from state to state and court to court within a state. This is partly because of the different levels of civil courts within the respective states.

A representative sample of filing fees for civil complaints in different states is as follows: 

State Complaint Filing Fee
California Superior Court $370.00 to $435.00
New York Supreme and County Civil Courts $210.00 (to obtain index number)
Texas Supreme Court $155.00 (Petition for Review)

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with My Complaint?

If you want to begin a civil lawsuit because you have been wronged in some manner, you want to consult a lawyer. Your lawyer can advise you whether you should begin a lawsuit and then advise you about the court in which you should file. If you are the plaintiff, your lawyer can draft an expert complaint to begin the process.

If you have been served with a complaint, you need a lawyer to advise you about how best to respond to the case you are now involved in. A lawyer will research your best potential legal defenses, prepare the documents, file them, and represent your interests during settlement negotiations and at a trial if necessary. If you have been served, you do not want to delay consulting a lawyer because you only have a limited time to respond.

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