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A civil complaint initiates a civil lawsuit by setting forth for the court a claim for relief from damages caused, or wrongful conduct engaged in, by the defendant. The complaint outlines all of the plaintiff's theories of relief, or causes of action (e.g., negligence, battery, assault), and the facts supporting each cause of action. The complaint also serves as notice to the defendant that legal action is underway. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure govern construction of complaints filed in federal courts. Many state courts follow the same rules as the federal courts, or similar rules.
The caption opens the complaint and identifies the location of the action, the court, the docket or file number, and the title of the action. Each party to the lawsuit must be identified in the caption and must be a real party in interest, that is, either a person who has been injured or harmed in some way, or a person accused of causing the injury or harm. In addition, a party must have the capacity to sue or to be sued. If a party lacks capacity owing to mental incompetence, for example, the suit may be dismissed. Any number of parties may be named and joined in a single lawsuit as long as all meet the requirements of capacity and all are real parties in interest.
Courts of limited–subject matter jurisdiction, such as federal courts, require the complaint to demonstrate that the court has jurisdiction to hear the case. In general-jurisdiction courts, such as most state courts, a jurisdictional allegation is unnecessary.
The most critical part of the complaint is the claim, or cause of action. The claim is a concise and direct statement of the basis upon which the plaintiff seeks relief. It sets forth the rule of law that forms the basis of the lawsuit and recounts the facts that support the rule of law. Finally, the claim concludes that the defendant violated the rule of law, thereby causing the plaintiff's injuries or damages, and that the plaintiff is entitled to relief. For example: A negligence claim might begin with a statement that the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff; that the defendant breached that duty; and that, as a result, the plaintiff suffered injuries or other damages. The conclusion then states that because the defendant's breach was the cause of the plaintiff's injuries, the plaintiff is entitled to compensation from the defendant.
The complaint may state separate claims or theories of relief in separate counts. For example, in a negligence case, count 1 might be for negligence, count 2 for breach of warranty, and count 3 for fraud. Each count contains a separate statement of the rule of law, supporting facts, and conclusion. There is no limit to the number of counts a plaintiff may include in one complaint.
Federal courts and other jurisdictions that follow the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require a brief, simple pleading known as a notice pleading. The notice pleading informs the defendant of the allegations and the basis for the claim. The rules require that the complaint contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief" (Fed. R. Civil P. 8[a]). Rule 8(c)(1) states, "Each averment of a pleading shall be simple, concise, and direct."
Following the claim, the prayer for relief or demand for judgment appears. Commonly called the wherefore clause, the prayer for relief demands judgment for the plaintiff and relief in the form of the remedies the plaintiff requests. The plaintiff may demand relief in several forms. Money damages are compensation for injuries and loss. General money damages cover injuries directly related to the defendant's actions—such as pain and suffering, or emotional distress. Special money damages arise indirectly from the defendant's actions and may include lost wages or medical bills. The court
awards exemplary or punitive damages when the defendant's actions are particularly egregious. The purpose of punitive damages is to punish the defendant and deter similar wrongdoing. Other types of damages are recovery of property, injunctions, and specific performance of a contractual obligation. The plaintiff may demand alternative relief or several different types of relief, in the same complaint (Fed. R. Civ. P. 8[a]).
A demand for a jury trial may be included near the end of the complaint. The complaint must be signed by the plaintiff's attorney, indicating that the attorney has read the complaint; that it is grounded in fact, to the best of the attorney's knowledge, information, and belief; and that it is brought in good faith.
A criminal complaint charges the person named or an unknown person with a particular offense. For example, after the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, authorities issued a John Doe complaint, charging an unknown person or persons with the crime.
A criminal complaint must state the facts that constitute the offense and must be supported by probable cause. It may be initiated by the victim, a police officer, the district attorney, or another interested party. After the complaint is filed, it is presented to a magistrate, who reviews it to determine whether sufficient cause exists to issue an arrest warrant. If the magistrate determines that the complaint does not state sufficient probable cause, the complaint is rejected and a warrant is not issued. In federal court, the complaint is presented under oath (Fed. R. Crim. P. 3).
Federal Employees News Digest, eds. 2000. Whistleblowing: A Federal Employee's Guide to Charges, Procedures, and Penalties. Reston, Va.: Federal Employees News Digest.
Kahan, Jeffrey B. 2001. "How to Prepare Response to Complaints." Los Angeles Lawyer 24 (April).
McCord, James W.H. "Drafting the Complaint: Defending and Testing the Lawsuit." Practising Law Institute 447.