How do you start a lawsuit in federal court? The answer is given in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Number 3.
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Number 3 is short and sweet: “A civil action is commenced by filing a complaint with the court.”
Yet in this one sentence, there is a lot going on. Let’s unpack it.
“A civil action” is a lawsuit that does not seek criminal penalties, like fines or imprisonment. Usually, civil actions are between private parties, but governments can also bring civil actions and have civil actions brought against them.
Typical civil actions are claims for breaches of contracts—that is, where one party fails to perform a promise—or for torts—that is, where one party injures another party, either by accident or on purpose, like, for example, in a car accident.
How does one commence a civil action, or in other words, how do you start a lawsuit? As explained in Rule 3: by filing a complaint with the court.
“Filing … with the court” usually means going to the courthouse, finding the clerk’s office, and delivering the necessary paperwork, and of course, paying the required filing fees. Recently, electronic filing is becoming increasingly available, so trips to the court house may not be necessary for much longer.
And what is it that you have to file with the court to get your civil action going? Rule 3 has the answer for that as well: A complaint.
That’s … not very illuminating. What’s a complaint, you might ask? Good question.
A complaint is a written document, and it’s the way the plaintiff in a lawsuit notifies the court and the defendant of why the plaintiff is bringing the lawsuit. Complaints have three main parts.
First, complaints contain allegations. Allegations are the plaintiff’s version of events. At this point in the process, a plaintiff doesn’t have to offer any proof that the allegations are true. The plaintiff merely asserts that the allegations are true. Proof of whether the allegations are true or not will come later in the process.
Second, complaints contain claims. Claims are the legal grounds that justify the plaintiff’s lawsuit. These theories could be anything the law allows, including lawsuits for breach of contract or negligence, but also violations of anti-discrimination or antitrust laws, or anything else authorized by the legislature or the courts. By the way, “claims” are , also sometimes called causes of action, a name that makes sense because the claim is what causes the action, which is another name for lawsuit.
Finally, complaints contain prayers for relief. The prayer for relief describes what the plaintiff hopes to get out of the lawsuit. Usually, plaintiffs want damages, which is another word for money. Sometimes, plaintiffs also want injunctions, which are court orders compelling the defendant to do something or to refrain from doing something. There are other remedies available, but damages and injunctions are the big ones, so a discussion of other remedies will have to wait for another time.
And … that’s about it. To recap, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 3 requires civil actions to be commenced by filing a complaint in court. Complaints have three parts: allegations, claims, and prayers for relief.
And with that simple piece of paper, your lawsuit is off and running.
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