Have questions about the legal definition of a complaint and what it means for court proceedings?

Read our complete guide to learn what is required to file or answer a legal complaint. Plus, get the facts on if they are public record, can be made anonymously, and much more!

What Does Complaint Mean in Legal Terms?

A complaint is a formal, legal document that an individual, group, organization, or entity files in a court of law against another party. A legal complaint initiates a lawsuit and alerts the defendant (the party against which the complaint has been filed) of the claims of the plaintiff (the party filing the complaint).

The complaint outlines all necessary details, such as the plaintiff’s claims against the defendant and the legal remedy for the defendant’s wrongdoing.

Once the document has been served to the defendant, they must respond before a specific deadline. The defendant’s response can involve their admitting, denying, refuting, or defending against the included allegations.

It allows both parties the opportunity to prepare and argue the lawsuit in a court trial if they fail to negotiate and arrive at a settlement outside the court.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind when filing a legal complaint, which include:

  1. Complaints must follow a specified format and include certain specifics.
  2. The civil procedure regulations that apply to that jurisdiction will outline the prerequisites for filing a complaint.
  3. The plaintiff or the plaintiff’s counsel must sign the complaint.
  4. Complaints must be submitted to the relevant court within the correct jurisdiction. Only then does the court have the authority to hear the matter.
  5. Serving the defendant with complaints is required. That means they must have a copy of the complaint handed to them and advised of the hearing’s date and time. It is crucial to include the correct addresses for both parties in the complaint.

Complaint legal definition

What are Some Common Complaints Filed in the USA?

A diverse list of some common types of complaints can culminate into civil and criminal lawsuits. Some of the most common legal complaints include:

  • Civil Complaints: Covers disputes such as contract breaches, property disputes, and tort claims (i.e., personal injury claims), among others.
  • Criminal Complaints: Entail accusations of committing crimes such as murder, assault, burglary, felony, and more (Criminal suits are filed against the defendant by the government on behalf of the people. )
  • Family Law Complaints: Covers civil complaints, such as divorce, alimony, child support cases, etc.
  • Healthcare Complaints: Covers medical tort claims, such as medical malpractice, nursing home negligence, patient rights, etc.
  • Environmental Complaints: Covers pollution, exposure to dangerous elements and toxins, illegal dumping, and intentional/unintentional efforts to cause harm.
  • Employment Law complaints: Entails wrongful termination, harassment, injury, discrimination, unpaid wages, and other types of mistreatment occurring in the workplace.

What is a Legally Sufficient Complaint?

A complaint must be legally sufficient to be filed, which means there is enough evidence to support the allegation being made. Some of the components and requirements of a legally sufficient complaint are:

  • Contain the names and identities of the plaintiff and defendant
  • Includes the on-record addresses for both the defendant and the plaintiff (For corporate entities, that typically includes the address other party displays on their website as the official business address or the address listed on the company’s certificate of formation papers provided by the Secretary of State.)
  • Identifies damages, injury, or loss the defendant has caused the plaintiff
  • Laws and legal basis for the claims
  • Legal remedy the plaintiff seeks (this is called the prayer for relief)
  • The plaintiff or their attorney must sign the legal complaint.
  • The plaintiff must file the legal complaint in the right jurisdiction for the court to begin its proceedings.

How to File a Legal Complaint?

The way to correctly draft and file a legal complaint includes a specific format. The following is essential to have a successful legal claim.

  1. The best way to successfully file a complaint begins with consulting an attorney to help you with the legal process.
  2. Hiring proper legal counsel will help you identify the law points and legal basis on which you, as a plaintiff, can file a complaint.
  3. Identify the correct court based on the jurisdiction and the geographical location where both parties are based.
  4. Draft the complaint with all the necessary information.
  5. In addition, you may also need to fill out additional forms for some courts in certain jurisdictions. You can obtain all the required forms from the court’s website or the court clerk’s office.
  6. To file the complaint, you need to pay a filing fee. This amount can vary from one jurisdiction and court to another. If you are unable to pay the filing fees, you can check with the court clerk regarding a fee waiver.
  7. File the complaint and serve the summons by following the appropriate service of process rules for your jurisdiction. You can get the summons served by a process certified mail or other methods.
  8. Once the defendant has been served the summons, you must file a proof of service with the court stating the defendant has been notified in person about the lawsuit being brought against them.
  9. The law dictates that the defendant must be given a particular duration to respond to the summons.
  10. The lawsuit proceedings begin, which can enter into a trial if both parties fail to negotiate.

How to Answer a Legal Complaint?

If you have been served summons for a lawsuit, the following are some things you can consider before responding to the legal complaint:

  • First and foremost, getting legal counsel and hiring an attorney is recommended.
  • Understand the complaint and note the legal points surrounding the lawsuit.
  • Evaluate the cause of action and the legal remedy which the plaintiff seeks.
  • Assess the claims made.
  • Some claims may make sense for you to accept, while others may make sense to refute. For instance, you can admit that you entered a contract with the plaintiff but refute claims of breach.
  • Check the deadline and prepare the response draft with the help of your attorney.

Also, be sure to include any affirmative defenses to remove the liability of the accused when the defendant admits to the criminal act, such as the act was committed in self-defense, pleading criminal insanity, or lack of subject matter jurisdiction, contributory negligence, expired statute of limitations, among others.

If proven, you can no longer be legally held accountable in the lawsuit in question (if it is a criminal case due to double jeopardy law, the government can’t try you again for the accused crimes, bar some situations, like if witness tampering occurred.).

For example, if the plaintiff has taken way too long to file the lawsuit, the defense can file to request the judge to dismiss the case if the statute of limitations has expired.

Also, if you, the defendant, have any counterclaims against the plaintiff, you should include that in your response.

Finally, after signing the response, you can proceed to file it. Ensure to do it before the deadline.

Who Makes a Legal Complaint in a Court Proceeding?

The legal complaint is initiated by the ‘plaintiff’ or the party who has suffered damage, injury, or loss due to the actions, intentional or otherwise, of the party against which the complaint has been made, the defendant.

Are Anonymous Complaints Legal?

Yes, although rare, plaintiffs can legally file complaints anonymously using a pseudonym if certain conditions are met. Typically, the factors considered by a judge on whether to permit a plaintiff to file anonymously are if it helps in the pursuit of justice and if it were to endanger a plaintiff to file a complaint under their real name for fear of retaliation on the defendant’s part.

This is especially pertinent when it involves a plaintiff suing due to their witnessing a crime.

For instance, in a Qui Tam lawsuit (Whistleblower claim), the relator, the plaintiff who initially brings the suit on behalf of the U.S. government, can be allowed to be anonymous while the case develops.

Although, the complaint will not be filed completely confidential due to the government being aware of the relator’s identity.

Are Legal Complaints Public Record?

In the U.S., most legal complaints are public records. However, some complaints can be exempt (or partially exempt) from disclosure to the public. Some of these can include:

  • Complaints involving minors usually have restricted access.
  • Sexual assault or abuse cases
  • Domestic Violence cases to protect the identity of the victim
  • Complaints that involve trade secrets, proprietary business information, and confidential information.
  • Complaints involving national security interests or government secrets.
Written by Aaron R. Winston
Last Updated: August 16, 2023 11:02am CDT