Essentials to be kept in mind while drafting Complaints
All actions in federal court commence with the filing of a complaint. Drafting a complaint is a complex task and not one to be taken lightly. Few documents in the law are expected to wear so many hats.
The basic guide for drafting a complaint in federal court is sanctioned under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, specifically Rule 8 that sets forth the essential elements of a complaint. Generally speaking, a complaint should include jurisdiction, venue, parties, statement of facts, claims or cause of action, and finally request for relief. A complaint is the first public face of the litigation and it sets the tone for future discussion and communication about the case. It narrates a persuasive story to a varied audience; describing the case to the judge, the parties, the press, the public, and the opposing counsel. A complaint should be clear, concise, well- written, persuasive, comprehensive, and reliable. It should be drafted in such a manner that a reader on reaching the final page should feel that a wrong has actually been committed, that the legal claims raised are sound, and the reliefs requested are most reasonable and deserving. A complaint should subtly call attention to the strengths of the plaintiff’s claim and the tone and emphasis should match the goals. Drafting a complaint involves several steps:
Before putting pen to paper, the plaintiff’s counsel should immerse themselves in the case file. As a first step conduct an investigation as reasonably possible under the circumstances. This can be through varied means such as interviewing clients, interviewing witnesses, reviewing public records, correspondence with opposing parties, etc. It is always better to resort to pre-litigation investigation to establish facts rather than formal discovery. Also, keep in mind that even when an investigation requires the cooperation of the opposite party, that cooperation is more likely to be forthcoming before a suit is filed. However, be sure to consult your jurisdiction's rules of professional conduct, ethical constraints, case laws, and bar opinions interpreting pre-litigation investigation before embarking on the process. A thorough preparation will limit the chance that the attorney will need to make revisions on the theory of the case after the complaint is filed.
2.Commencing the Process:
Normally, a civil action commences with the filing of a complaint before the court clerk. The filing date of the complaint usually determines if the lawsuit is within the applicable statute of limitations. The date of the filing also sets the clock ticking for other dates, such as the deadline for serving the defendant with the summons and complaint. The date of service of the summons and complaint, in turn triggers the timing of a series of pretrial procedures.
3.Introductory & Jurisdictional Statement:
An introductory statement though not required, is still advisable, as it will help to orient the reader before the elements of the cause of action(s) are alleged. This statement should provide a clear and concise statement of the case. Remember, drafting the introductory statement is a work of art because, although it is neither an argument nor a detailed rehashing of the contents of the complaint, it must be convincing. Federal complaints require a jurisdictional statement. While drafting the statement portion, try to list the specific statutes under which you are claiming jurisdiction, such as federal question, or diversity of citizenship or violations of civil rights. Usually, only two types of cases can be filed in federal court: cases involving “federal questions” and cases involving “diversity of citizenship. Not providing proper attention to the jurisdictional strategy while drafting the complaint may lead to undesirable consequences.
4.Naming the Parties:
After the jurisdictional statement, the complaint should identify the parties. It should explain who you are and who the defendant is. The defendants should be identified with a close eye toward relief. As a rule of thumb, when seeking damages, seek them from the person who inflicted the injury. On the other hand, if injunctive relief is sought, remember to include the top-level officials, such as the heads of departments, as they can offer the most thorough and far-ranging relief. In short, damages start at the bottom and injunctive relief starts at the top. The core principle is to include as defendants everyone necessary for relief.
5.Statement of Facts & Claims:
Next comes the “facts” section where the story is portrayed in a light most favorable to Plaintiff. Each paragraph of the factual allegations should set out a simple, objective statement of fact. All facts that are necessary to support the legal claims, and the standing of the plaintiffs to advance them, must be included. After the facts, the legal claims or cause of action should be listed. It should precisely allege which legal requirements have been violated and what the defendants have done or have failed to do. When drafting, refrain from copying allegations from another complaint without clearly comprehending if those allegations suit your case.
6.Prayer for Relief:
The demand for judgment or relief requires a short statement of the remedies that are being sought. The relief sought may include money damages, injunctive relief or both. If injunctive relief is sought, remember to include the routine allegation that equitable relief is necessary because relief at law is inadequate. The request for relief should also contain a catchall request for “such other and further relief as this court may deem just and proper.” This clause can come to your protection if at any stage during the litigation you seek to obtain more than or different relief from what you initially contemplated when drafting the complaint.