A civil complaint is the document by which a lawsuit is started. Under the federal rules, the three mandatory elements in every civil complaint are: (1) a statement as to why the court has jurisdiction over the case, (2) a “short and plain” statement as to why the plaintiff is entitled to relief and (3) a description of the relief sought. If a jury trial is sought, that must also be in the complaint. Actual complaints can range from a page to a hundred and vary based on the case’s complexity. Nevertheless, complaints need not establish evidence and should be broad enough to be flexible in terms of what will eventually be proven while giving “notice” to the defendant as to the nature of the cause of action.
Complaints must typically be filed with the court and an index number must be purchased with the filing. The complaint is then served on the defendant with a “summons.” This service of process represents the commencement of the civil case and “tolls” any applicable statute of limitations.