How To Make A Federal Court Complaint

A federal court complaint is the first document you file to start a lawsuit. It’s not a short form, because you have to detail the facts of your claim and explain why those facts mean that someone should be found responsible for something. 

If a clerk finds that your complaint does not meet both requirements, they will throw it out of court before it enters the system where other judges and lawyers can review it and this is exactly what you don’t want to happen!

Drafting an Answer to a Civil Complaint – YouTube
Key Takeaways
1. Understanding the Process: Familiarize yourself with the steps involved in making a federal court complaint, from preparing the necessary documentation to filing it correctly.
2. Importance of Well-Pleaded Complaints: Crafting a well-pleaded complaint is essential for presenting your case effectively. Ensure that your complaint includes all relevant facts and legal elements.
3. Accessing Official Forms: Utilize official pro se complaint forms provided by federal courts to structure your complaint according to legal requirements.
4. Consider Legal Guidelines: Adhere to specific legal guidelines, such as jurisdiction, venue, and applicable laws, while drafting and filing your federal court complaint.
5. Seek Professional Advice: If you’re uncertain about any aspect of the process, consider seeking advice from legal professionals to ensure accuracy and maximize your chances of a successful complaint.

File Your Complaint

In order to file your complaint, you must complete and file a summons (a request for the defendant to appear in court), a complaint (a formal legal document), and an affidavit of service. After checking that all three documents are prepared correctly, take them to the clerk of the district court where you’re filing your case. 

The clerk will charge a fee for filing fees depending on how much time has passed since you first became aware of the injury/action.

After all three documents have been filed with the clerk of court, they will either be sent immediately or within 5 business days depending on if it is an emergency or not under Rule 4(m) Timely Filing of Documents: Federal Rules of Civil Procedure FAQs.

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Write The Caption On The Complaint

The caption of the complaint is the first section of your document, and it should include some basic information about who you are filing against, where you filed your claim, what court will be handling it (this can be different from where you are filing), and when.

You’ll want to include the following in your caption:

  • Title of case: Write this in all caps and present tense (e.g., “Plaintiff v. Defendant”).
  • Parties: Include both parties’ names in this section; if there are multiple plaintiffs or defendants then list them here as well (e.g., “John Doe v. Ann Smith et al.).

Include A Case Number

The case number is a unique number assigned to your complaint. It can be used to refer to your complaint, and it’s used to identify the court and its jurisdiction. 

The case number also identifies the judge who presides over the case, as well as his or her jurisdiction (for example, “Judge Smith of District Court for the Southern District of New York”). This information will be important later on if you need to contact any official court personnel regarding your complaint after it has been filed.

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Title The Complaint

Once you have filed your complaint, the clerk will assign it a case number and refer to it as “the plaintiff’s complaint.” The title of the document is an important part of its identity. A good title should be clear and concise; it should tell readers what the document is about without being too long or flowery.

A good title should be written in the first person (for example, “My Complaint Against My Boss For Sexual Harassment”), since this makes it seem more like something you have written rather than something someone else has written for you. 

If possible, avoid using question marks in titles: they are often confusing and distracting to readers who may think they are supposed to answer them when they don’t know what questions those might be! 

Similarly, avoid using statements like “I believe my boss owes me $5 million dollars” because this doesn’t tell us anything about why we should care about this person’s opinion on the matter at hand. 

If possible, also avoid using commands like “Don’t Forget To Call Your Mom” in titles; these types of instructions can put unnecessary pressure on someone who might not even remember how old their mother was when she died! Finally and most importantly avoid predictions like “The End Of The World Is Near!” 

These types of titles may sound very exciting at first glance but soon become boring after repeated reading over time….

Identify The Parties

Before you can create a complaint, you need to identify the parties. Parties are defined as the plaintiff (a person or entity who files a lawsuit) and the defendant (a party being sued by another). You may be wondering why there are two sides it’s because each party has their own interests that they’re attempting to protect in court.

The plaintiff is usually the person filing a claim against someone else. In this case, it would be your client who wants to get money from someone else for some reason. 

The defendant could also be an individual but could also refer to a group or organization such as Walmart Corporation if they were being sued by someone who claimed that Walmart violated their rights in some way.

A well-prepared complaint can set the tone for your legal proceedings. Refer to our checklist for drafting a complaint to ensure you cover all the necessary aspects and build a compelling case.

Explain How You Were Harmed By The Defendant

The purpose of a complaint is to give the court enough information to determine whether or not your case should go forward, so it’s important that you clearly explain how the defendant’s actions caused you harm. In your complaint, be sure to include:

How the defendant’s actions were wrongful; for example, if someone cheated on an exam at school and got away with it, they could potentially sue their teacher over this issue.

How the defendant’s actions were intentional or negligent; for example, if a child got seriously injured in a playground accident due to poor upkeep of said playground.

How many people were affected by these actions; for example: “the defendant completely ruined my life” versus “the defendant ruined my life.

If there are several people involved in an incident (such as two children fighting), describe how each individual was affected by these events so that everyone gets equal attention! It’s important that each party feels heard when filing his/her claim against another party who has wronged him/herself first!

State Your Specific Claims Against The Defendant

The first step in your federal complaint is to state a claim. The body of the complaint will list all the facts that support your claim. 

You must be specific in listing these facts; if you are not, the court may dismiss your case as too broad or vague to address. 

For example, if you are suing someone for violating your rights under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, which protects individuals from being deprived of life or liberty without due process of law by state actors (e.g., police officers), an example statement might look like this:

Defendants John Smith and Jane Doe acted with deliberate indifference toward me when they arrested me on February 5th 2016 without probable cause.

Next up: how do I avoid making a claim that’s too broad? Simpleby not including every single violation of law you could possibly imagine being violated should be included in your complaint!

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Write In First Person, Present Tense

The language you use in your complaint will be critical to its success. In order to make sure that your word choice is clear and easy for the court to understand, think about what you would want to know if you were reading a complaint. What questions would be important? Write those down, and then use that list to guide your writing.

To get started, write in first person (i.e., “I”) along with present tense (i.e., “I am doing something right now”). This makes it clearer for readers where they are in time as well as who’s speaking (you!).

Also, avoid unnecessary words like “myself” or “ourselves” when referring back on yourself/your group/the organization/etcetera; these can sound awkward when repeated multiple times throughout an entire document! Instead stick with just using either “me” or “us.

Give Facts And Details For Each Claim, In Chronological Order

One of the most important things to remember when making a federal court complaint is that every allegation must be supported by facts and details. You should also organize your complaint so that each claim, in chronological order, tells a story about what happened to you. Be specific about what you want and how the defendant harmed you or violated your rights.

The following are some examples of topics that federal courts have considered when deciding whether to dismiss claims:

Complaint consists only of conclusory statements and conclusions” (this means there was no actual evidence presented)

Plaintiff fails to show any connection between events as alleged and injury” (this means there was no proof of causation)

Request Relief And Give A Deadline For Your Request To Be Met, If Applicable

Relief is the acti

What is relief?on that you are requesting the court to take, such as a hearing or a specific order. For example, if you believe your child has been harmed by abuse at school and want your child’s teacher suspended until an investigation can be completed, then this would be considered relief in your complaint.

Deadline for relief request: You may have noticed that every complaint has an expiration date listed in the title bar of the document. This date is called a “deadline” and it will tell you when to expect an answer from federal district court. 

If you don’t give any notice of what action should occur by this deadline, then litigation will be delayed indefinitely until all parties agree on how they want to proceed with their case. 

If no action is taken within 90 days after filing (for instance), then plaintiff(s) may seek leave of court (permission) to amend their complaint because there wasn’t enough time for them to respond before another 90 days passed without doing anything else about it.

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Make Sure There Are No Typos Or Errors In The Formatting Of Your Complaint

The first thing to do is make sure that your complaint has no typos or errors in the formatting of the complaint. 

This can be a problem if you work with an attorney and they misspell a word, use incorrect grammar, punctuation, or capitalization. For example, if it says “their” instead of “there” in one place but not another place it may be confusing for the court to read. 

Also check for page numbers (are there any missing?), court name (is this the right court?), location (did I put down my county?), jurisdiction (is this case really federal?).

It’s also important to check all these things before filing your complaint because once you hit submit on e-filings like CM/ECF or PACER there’s not much else you can do besides fix typos after it gets filed since all parties will have access to see what was filed by then!


The complaint you write should be clear and precise, with no typos or grammatical errors. The judge needs to be able to read the document easily, so don’t make it difficult by including unnecessary details that don’t support your argument. 

A complaint is just like any other legal document: it must follow a specific format and use proper grammar and spelling so that judges can understand its contents easily. If you want to win your case, pay close attention not only when writing but also while following these tips on how best to create federal court complaints!

Further Reading

US Courts – Pro Se Civil Case Complaint Forms Short Description: Access official complaint forms for civil cases from US Courts to ensure accurate and formal complaint filing.

Lawshelf – Drafting a Well-Pleaded Civil Complaint Short Description: Watch short videos on Lawshelf to learn the essentials of drafting a well-pleaded civil complaint effectively.

Civil Law Self-Help Center – Filing a Complaint to Start Your Case Short Description: Get detailed guidance on filing a complaint to initiate your case, provided by the Civil Law Self-Help Center.


What is the purpose of a civil case complaint?

A civil case complaint serves as the initial legal document outlining the plaintiff’s grievances, allegations, and claims against the defendant.

Can I use a template to draft my civil case complaint?

Yes, you can often find official complaint forms provided by courts or resources like US Courts’ Pro Se Forms, which can help ensure the proper format and required information.

What should I consider when drafting a well-pleaded complaint?

When drafting a well-pleaded complaint, focus on presenting clear and concise facts, outlining the legal basis for your claims, and specifying the relief you’re seeking.

Are there specific rules to follow during the complaint filing process?

Yes, each jurisdiction may have its own rules and procedures for filing complaints. It’s important to research and adhere to the guidelines set by the relevant court.

Can I get assistance with the complaint filing process?

Absolutely. Many self-help resources, legal aid centers, and online platforms offer guidance on how to draft and file a complaint accurately. The Civil Law Self-Help Center is one such resource.