This Guide explains how a non-lawyer should write a Complaint for filing in federal court.
I recently exchanged comments with a non-lawyer here on Avvo concerning what needs to go into a federal court complaint. I do not recommend self-representation in any court. If you want to go it alone don't think you have to sound like a lawyer. In other words, don't use legalese. English works just fine. Keep the complaint as simple as possible. You're telling a story and informing the defendant and the court why you have a legal claim worthy of a remedy. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 tells you exactly what needs to go into the complaint, which is your "pleading." Rule 8 says: "A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain: (1) a short and plain statement of the grounds for the court's jurisdiction, unless the court already has jurisdiction and the claim needs no new jurisdictional support; (2) a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief; and (3) a demand for the relief sought, which may include relief in the alternative or different types of relief."
Federal courts have limited jurisdiction. This means that they cannot hear all types of cases. There are two main types of federal jurisdiction: (1) federal question; and (2) diversity. If your claim arises under a federal law then the court will have jurisdiction to hear the claim (read 28 U.S.C. section 1331). Diversity jurisdiction means that you and the defendant are from different states. For diversity jurisdiction the amount in controversy must be at least $75,000 (read 28 U.S.C. section 1332). If you have claims arising under state law, then the federal court will have "supplemental jurisdiction" (read 28 U.S.C. section 1367). Law schools offer entire courses on federal jurisdiction, so this explanation is really simplified. There are exceptions and defenses that can be used to attack jurisdiction, such as failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Failure to exhaust arises in ERISA, labor and employment , and other types of cases. For example, to bring a federal discrimination case you must first have obtained a right to sue letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If you are a union member suing the union for breach of its duty of fair representation you must have exhausted your rights under the grievance process and pursued any internal appeals available through the union.
For your purposes, the key words in Rule 8(a)(2) (and in (1) regarding jurisdiction for that matter) are "a short and plain statement." This is where you tell the story of what happened and the legal elements of the claim. If you believe you were terminated from your job because of your race, then state why you think so. You have to make allegations that support each elements of a claim of employment discrimination. The elements of a claim are the facts that you have to prove in order to win the case. Pattern jury instructions are a good source for finding the elements of your claim. You can also use google to find the elements. For example a google search of "examples of employment discrimination complaints" returned a sample complaint from lexisneixs.com. Fill out the registration and take a look at the sample complaint. This will also show you the general structure for the complaint. Understanding the elements of the claim is difficult. That's a big part of what law school is all about. Winning the lawsuit is all about proving the elements of your claim and understanding the analysis the court will use in processing your case. Yes, it gets complicated but here we're only talking about writing the complaint, not what happens after you file it. For that, you will need to read as much as possible about the law and legal analysis that applies to your case.
After you've completed the claim section you need to satisfy Rule 8(a)(3). This section typically begins with "WHEREFORE," followed by the relief you want. If you want money, say so and how much. Reinstatement to your job? Say so. Don't worry. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(c) says that the court should grant the relief to which you are entitled, even if you haven't asked for it in the complaint. To be safe, add a request "for such other relief to which plaintiff is entitled at law or in equity."
Signature, Jury Demand, Caption
You have to sign the complaint (read Rule 11). Under the signature line put your name, address, phone number, fax number (if any, but only use one if you will see a fax the same day without having to go to someplace like FedEx/Kinkos), and email address. If you don't have an email address get one. Most of the federal district courts insist on electronic filing. When anything gets filed with the court, whether by you, the defendant or the court, you will receive the filing through email. Don't ignore your email inbox. If you want a jury to decide your case you need to do two things: (1) put "Jury Demand Endorsed Hereon" in the caption of the complaint; and (2) after the demand for relief write "A jury is demanded on all claims," add a signature line and sign for the jury demand. Last but not least make sure on the first page of the complaint you have the proper caption. The caption identifies the court, the plaintiff and plaintiff's address, the defendant and defendant's address, and the name of the pleading, i.e., "Complaint" (plus the jury demand endorsement). A simple caption can be found at uscourts.gov/RulesAndPolicies/rules/current-rules/illustrative-civil-rules-forms.aspx. You can also search the web to find examples of a proper caption.
I do not recommend that you write your own complaint. If you want to, however, I hope the above guide helps you. As you write the complaint you might find the task overwhelming, especially when you have a go at the claims section. I can only say that self-study is a must. Use every resource available to you to learn everything you can about the claim you are filing. The complaint is only the first step. Make sure to read the court's local rules and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. If you decide that you need a lawyer then you can find really good ones here on the Avvo website.
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