The Summons and Complaint

Although federal court requires an additional document, a civil action cover sheet, generally, you need only two documents to start a lawsuit.  In most instances, those documents are a summons and a complaint. In some types of litigation, the documents would be a notice of petition or order to show cause, and a petition.  Whichever pair of documents that need to be prepared, both of the documents are prepared by the person bringing the lawsuit, the plaintiff, or, in some cases, the petitioner.

Though prepared by the plaintiff, technically, the court issues the summons. It is a form of legal process, that is, its purpose is to order a person to come before the court.  The summons is a rather simple document, usually no more than one page long. The summons  tells the defendant to appear before the court by serving and filing another document, the answer, within a specified period of time, generally 20 or 30 days. The content of the summons is usually very standard. Although the precise format of a summons will vary with the type of court, basically, all summons issued in a particular court say the same thing, just about word for word.

The complaint is the document which describes the lawsuit. Some complaints are very simple, and might not be much more than one page long. In complex cases, complaints can be fairly long, although complaints tend not to be among the largest documents in any particular case. In some types of cases, such as personal injury or debt collection, the content of complaints is almost a standardized form. In short, a complaint is suppose to be a brief summary of the factual and legal basis for the plaintiff’s lawsuit.

Complaints are divided into paragraphs, each paragraph called an allegation. A complaint may contain a few allegations designed to address the court’s concern with jurisdiction over the matter. These allegations may be more important in some courts, particularly federal court, than in others. The issue of jurisdiction goes to the question of whether the court has the authority to handle the type of case raised by the complaint. The complaint will also contain allegations, no more than one or two per party normally, describing the parties, both plaintiff and defendant. The largest number of allegations in a complaint summarizes the facts forming the basis of the claims contained in the complaint. The next largest group of allegations will describe the claim or claims raised by the complaint, some allegations perhaps anchoring the claim to specific statutory or other legal provisions.

There is usually one more paragraph at the end of the complaint, which is usually not numbered. This paragraph summarizes the claim of relief, that is, what the plaintiff wants to get out of the lawsuit. At one time, under New York State law, if a plaintiff sought damages, the plaintiff had to include a dollar amount for the damages sought. Because the numbers tended to be unrealistic, New York’s legislature changed the law, so that today a plaintiff need only say, basically, that damages are sought..

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