A complaint is the first concrete action in a civil case in which one person brings a legal cause of action against another person. A complaint could refer to the first step in a divorce proceeding, civil litigation, trust or estate dispute, contract dispute, tort, or any number of other potential legal courses of action.

The person, party, or parties who file the complaint are known as the plaintiffs or the petitioners, and the persons or parties against whom the complaint is filed are known as the defendants or respondents. Attorneys draft complaints very carefully, because these documents are the foundation for the legal action. Complaints list the grievances the action claims and what is known as they “prayer,” the requested relief, damages, or performance the plaintiff is seeking. The complaint contains the allegations and burden of proof for the plaintiff.

How is a Complaint Served?

The Complaint document must be filed with the Court Clerk or the County Clerk, and it must also be served on the defendants. Service requirements vary from state to state. A process server is usually hired to ensure the legal requirements for service are met and complied with. Civil procedure laws for each state outline the particular service laws for that state and must also comply with federal service regulations. Ideally, 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 Court Clerk will prepare a summons that includes crucial information related to the lawsuit. A file number will be assigned. The addresses of the attorneys filing the complaint must be listed on the complaint.
  • The defendant is notified of the timeframe in which he or she can respond.
  • The defendant’s attorney will make a response based on the merits of the case. Responses could include motions to dismiss or motion for summary judgment to avoid cases going to court.
  • Parties may try to reach a settlement agreement out of court after a complaint is served.

How Much Does it Cost to File a Complaint?

There are many different kinds of complaints and fees vary widely from state to state. Here is a representative sample of fees related to complaint service in different states.

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?

Yes. If you have been served a complaint, you need a lawyer to advise you of the aspects of the case in which you are now involved. If you wish to initiate an action, the complaint is an extremely important document as it is the basis of your lawsuit. A lawyer will research your best potential legal strategies, prepare the documents, file them, and represent your interests during settlement and negotiations.