Starting a Lawsuit: The Filing of a Summons and Complaint

In practical terms, the starting of a lawsuit is an easy step. The plaintiff or someone on behalf of the plaintiff, takes the original, and an appropriate number of copies of the summons and complaint to the clerk of the court, and presents these documents and the filing fee. The clerk’s office takes the documents, enters some information into a computer, and writes and/or stamps some information on the documents. The clerk’s office also prepares a receipt for the filing fee. The clerk then gives the plaintiff back the receipt and a copy of the summons and complaint. In most cases, all of this can be done by mail.

In New York State courts, technically, a plaintiff needs to take only the original of the summons and complaint to the clerk’s office. In practice, however, the plaintiff usually presents an original and a copy of both the summons and complaint. The plaintiff will get back a copy marked as filed, with a date and time. This is strong proof that the complaint was properly filed.

The filing of the summons and complaint has enormous significance. The act of filing of the complaint is what starts the lawsuit. The clerk’s writing on the summons and returning a copy to the plaintiff represents the issuance of the summons by the court.

Each complaint filed with a court clerk is assigned a unique number. The number is contained in the receipt, and is stamped or written on the issued summons and, often, on the returned copy of the complaint. In federal court, this number is called a case number. In New York State courts, it is called an index number. It is a very important number. Every additional document filed in the case with the court needs to include this number..

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