How to Draft a Well-Pleaded Complaint
Drafting an effective, persuasive, and well-pleaded complaint is one of the most important steps in the litigation process. This article will provide you with essential tips to ensure that, in any legal context, your complaint: (1) complies with the relevant federal, state, and local rules; (2) is well-written, concise, and easily readable; (3) alleges facts sufficient to support your claim(s) and request(s) for damages; (4) properly pleads meritorious causes of action that will survive a motion to dismiss; and (5) requests appropriate types of damages (e.g., compensatory, punitive, or treble), depending on the claims you are asserting.
The first section sets forth a summary, or checklist, of tips that you should follow when drafting a complaint and the second explains each item in more detail. The goal is to provide you with the practical tools to draft a complaint that effectively sets forth, with conciseness and precision, the facts and law that entitle you to damages or other relief.
I. The Complaint Checklist
When drafting a complaint, make sure that you adhere to the following:
1. Check the federal, state, and local rules for specific requirements regarding the filing of a complaint.
2. Based on the facts of your case, perform legal research to identify the claims that you can legitimately plead and damages you can seek.
3. At the beginning of the complaint, make sure that you properly allege subject matter jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction, and venue, and cite to relevant statutes and cases that support these allegations.
4. Draft a concise and plain statement of the factual allegations.
5. Draft separate counts for each legal claim.
6. Where required, plead the facts with particularity (e.g., if you allege a fraud claim)
7. Offer expert support for your claims if the rules require.
8. Be sure to specifically request the relief you are seeking (e.g., monetary
damages, an injunction), and a jury trial, if you would like one.
II. Drafting An Effective Complaint
Drafting a complaint is not a license to hurl insults at your adversary, use over-the-top language or “fancy” words, or include irrelevant facts. Rather, the purpose of a complaint is to set forth, in a concise, straightforward, and logical manner, the relevant facts that support particular legal claims and that entitle you to specific relief, such as damages or an injunction. Broadly speaking, a complaint typically contains the following sections, and attorneys use headings and numbered paragraphs to delineate each section:
● A caption identifying the plaintiff and defendant, and the court in which the complaint is being filed.
● A brief description of the parties (e.g., their name and address).
● Allegations demonstrating that the court has subject matter jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction, and venue to adjudicate the claims in the complaint.
● A concise yet thorough statement of the factual allegations that form the basis of your complaint.
● The specific legal claims or causes of action (in separate counts) that allegedly entitle you to a legal remedy.
● A specific request for damages or other relief, such as compensatory damages, punitive damages, or an injunction.
To ensure that your complaint is well-pleaded, complies with the relevant court rules, and sets forth meritorious causes of action, adhere to the following:
Comply With the Relevant Federal, State, and Local Rules
If you are filing in federal or state court, make sure that you review the relevant court rules to ensure that your complaint complies with all requirements. Furthermore, be sure to comply with the local rules of a particular court. For example, if you are filing a complaint in the Northern District of California, you should be aware that there are four divisions within the Northern District and each division may have specific local rules that you are required to follow. A judge in the San Francisco division may require, for example, that your complaint be drafted in Times New Roman font using 14-point type. If you are unaware of this rule and file a complaint in Courier New font and 12-point type, your complaint may be rejected. Thus, be sure to follow all relevant rules -- particularly the local rules -- to avoid this problem.
Research Before Writing
Make sure to research the relevant law before filing a complaint, and make sure that you conduct research to determine the specific court(s) that will have subject matter jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction, and venue over the complaint. Importantly, most, if not all, legal claims require a claimant to prove specific elements necessary to sustain a cause of action. For example, if you are alleging that a defendant committed negligence, you must show that the defendant: (1) owed a duty to your client; (2) breached that duty; and (3) directly and proximately caused harm to your client. In addition, you must be aware of potential defenses that your adversary may raise and assess whether those defenses will likely be successful. Finally, even if your claims are meritorious, they will not be heard if you file them in a court that does not have jurisdiction to hear the matter. For example, if you are alleging that the defendant was negligent, which is a state law claim, you cannot file your complaint in a federal court. Furthermore, you cannot require any individual to defend against claims in a court unless the defendant has “minimum contacts” with the state in which the action is filed. Thus, be sure to conduct research concerning both jurisdiction and the substantive law; otherwise, your adversary may file a motion to dismiss and your case could be dismissed before ever going to trial. This is a recipe for malpractice.
Allege Subject Matter Jurisdiction, Personal Jurisdiction, and Venue
Regardless of how meritorious your claims may be, they will not succeed unless they are filed in the proper court. Thus, at the beginning of your complaint, you must set forth facts establishing that the court has subject matter jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction, and venue to hear the complaint. For example, a federal court has jurisdiction over a complaint if either: (1) the claims are between citizens of different states and involve damages in excess of $75,000; or (2) the complaint alleges claims arising under federal laws or the United States Constitution. In addition, a court in a particular state only has jurisdiction over a defendant if the defendant has “minimum contacts” with the state to justify requiring the defendant to defend against the complaint in that jurisdiction. Finally, venue is generally proper in situations where the plaintiff or defendant resides in the state in which the court is located, or the acts giving rise to the alleged harm occurred there. Below is an example of how to assert jurisdiction in a complaint.
1. This court has subject matter jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28
U.S.C. 1331, which provides district courts with jurisdiction over civil actions arising under the United States Constitution or laws of the United States.
2. This court has personal jurisdiction over the defendant corporation because the corporation’s principal place of business is located in this state.
3. Venue is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1391(b) because the events giving rise to the allegations in this complaint occurred in this district.
Be sure to properly set forth each basis for subject matter jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction, and venue. Otherwise, your adversary will immediately move to dismiss the complaint.
Draft Concise and Plain Statement of the Facts
As stated earlier, do not include over-the-top language, “fancy” words, Latin, or irrelevant facts in your complaint, and never attack your adversary. Thus, never use words like “indisputably,” “clearly,” and “unmistakably.” Furthermore, always use the simplest word available to convey your point. For example, instead of exacerbate, choose worsen. Instead of loquacious, use talkative. Similarly, never use words like infra, supra, inter alia, or ipso facto. Finally, only include relevant facts (i.e., those that are necessary to support your legal claims), and never use language that can be construed as an attack on your adversary (or a court). In short, the complaint is not a forum in which to show off your literary skills or penchant for drama. Compare the examples below.
1. This defendant’s conduct indisputably and clearly demonstrates that, inter alia, the defendant -- a chronic alcoholic who was fired from his last three jobs -- engaged in horrific and odious conduct when uttered vitriolic and incendiary comments that were ipso facto defamatory.
2. The defendant’s statements were false and defamatory.
The second example conveys the writer’s point in clear and concise language, while the first contains over-the-top language, fancy (and unnecessary) words, and Latin -- all of which add nothing to the statement. Thus, be sure to write in a simple and concise manner. When you do, it earns you credibility with the court and enhances the persuasiveness of your document.
Ultimately, your goal is to set forth a concise, straightforward, and logical statement of the relevant facts that if taken as true, establish each element of your legal claims. For example, if you are alleging that the defendant was negligent, you must set forth facts demonstrating that the defendant had a legal duty (e.g., the defendant was the owner of Walmart), that the defendant breached that duty (e.g., the defendant failed to remove snow and ice that remained on the parking lot after a blizzard), and that the defendant’s acts or omissions directly and proximately caused your client’s damages (e.g., your client slipped on a sheet of ice and sustained severe injuries). Put simply, your facts must be connected to, and establish the meritoriousness of, each element of the legal claim(s) contained in your complaint. In doing so, be sure to avoid irrelevant, unnecessary, or extraneous facts, as they distract from the relevant facts and, ultimately, the substance of your claims. Consider the example below:
1. The defendant owns and operates Walmart, located at 1000 Smith Drive in Indianapolis, Indiana.
2. On December, 1, 2016, a severe snowstorm struck Indianapolis and resulted in an accumulation of approximately 14 inches.
3. In the three days following the blizzard, defendant failed to remove any of the snow and ice that had accumulated throughout the parking lot, despite repeated requests by pedestrians that the snow made operating a vehicle in the parking lot hazardous.
4. On the third day following the blizzard, plaintiff drove into the parking lot and, as she was exiting the vehicle, sustained a serious fall that resulted in a concussion and broken shoulder.
As the above example shows, each fact that the writer alleges is directly related to an element of negligence. No unnecessary or extraneous facts are included, and the allegations are clear and easily readable.
Draft Separate Counts for Each Legal Claim
If you allege more than one cause of action in your complaint (e.g., negligence and breach of contract), be sure to draft separate counts for each legal claim, in which you incorporate by reference all of your previous factual allegations. In other words, under the heading “Causes of Action” or “Legal Claims,” you should have one subheading for negligence, in which you set forth the facts supporting each element of negligence, and one heading for breach of contract in which you do the same. Doing so results in effective organization and enables the reader to clearly identify the facts upon which you are relying to support each claim. Consider the following example:
Count I: Negligence
20. Plaintiff incorporates by reference the facts alleged in paragraphs 1-19
21. Defendant, the owner of Walmart, owed a duty to exercise reasonable care to ensure its safety.
22. By failing, for three days, to remove the snow that had accumulated in the parking lot, defendant breached this duty of care.
23. Defendant’s negligence was the direct and proximate result of plaintiff’s injuries.
Count II: Breach of Contract
24. Plaintiff incorporates by reference the facts alleged in paragraphs 1-19.
25. By posting a sign before the blizzard that stated, “Walmart will clear all snow and ice from the premises to ensure the safety of its patrons,” defendant created an implied contract with its customers to ensure their safety.
26. By failing to remove the snow for three days after the blizzard, defendant breach this implied contract.
27. Defendant’s breach was the direct and proximate result of plaintiff’s
Each legal count is separated and the allegations are set forth in simple terms to track the elements necessary to prove each claim.
Plead Facts With Particularity Where Necessary
In some instances, the relevant rules or case law require you to plead facts with particularity. Essentially, this means, that, for some claims, such as fraud, you must set forth additional and specific facts that support the asserted legal claims. Be sure to check the relevant rules and case law in your jurisdiction to identify those claims that must be pled with particularity.
Offer Expert Support Where Necessary
For some claims, the relevant court rules or case law may require you to attach an affidavit from an expert attesting to the merit of your claim. This is most common in cases where a claimant alleges medical malpractice. Thus, before filing a complaint, to ensure that, where necessary, your complaint contains the necessary affidavit from a recognized expert.
Be Specific About the Relief You Are Requesting
In addition to setting forth subject matter jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction, and venue, along with the relevant facts and legal claims, you must also specify the relief you are seeking. Depending on the facts and legal claim(s), you may seek compensatory damages, punitive damages, or treble damages, or seek injunctive relief. The type of relief you seek will often depend on the injuries your client suffered, the egregiousness of the defendant’s conduct, and the damages that are authorized by relevant statutes. In particular, if you request punitive damages, you will be required to plead facts specifically demonstrating that the defendant acted with a culpable state of mind (e.g., purpose of knowledge).
If you adhere to these tips, you will ensure that your complaint is drafted in a concise, simple, and easily readable manner that sets forth the required components (e.g., subject matter jurisdiction, relevant facts, meritorious legal claims, and damages) to survive a motion to dismiss. After reading this article, you should review complaints filed in federal and state courts and practice drafting complaints that apply the techniques described in this article.
 These are complaints that apply the principles discussed in this article: