Introduction to Litigation: Filing a Suit, Serving a Defendant, and Filing a Complaint
Our purpose in introducing this handout is to hopefully de-mystify the subject of litigation and familiarize our clients with some of the basic terms and topics commonly encountered in a civil lawsuit. For the purposes of this handout, all of the terms identified and processes described are taken from the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure which govern the filing and prosecution of civil law actions in the District and Superior Courts of North Carolina.
Filing Suit and Serving the Defendant
The Rules of litigation require all civil relief sought in a court of law to be in the form of a civil action. Attorneys refer to civil actions in a number of ways including: case,action,lawsuit,papers,proceeding,complaint,suit,litigation,or claim. However, each of these terms or phrases generally refers to the same thing. The person seeking recovery in the civil action is called the Plaintiff. The person from whom recovery is sought is referred to as the Defendant.
Filing a Complaint.
In order to initiate a civil action, the Plaintiff must file a document called a Complaint. A Complaint is a special legal document referred to as a pleading. A pleading is a formal document which sets forth or responds to allegations or defenses. In addition to being the pleading which initiates the civil action, it is also a very important document that affects the overall conduct of the lawsuit. The first page of the Complaint contains a caption that identifies the parties. The party seeking relief is referred to as the plaintiff and the party from whom the relief is sought is known as the Defendant. The Complaint will also be identified with the civil case file number, the State and County in which the action is located, and the Court in which the action is filed. The body of the Complaint usually begins with statements identifying the citizenship of the parties, and statements which signify that the named Court has power over the parties and power to consider the merits of the claim.
As with any pleading, the Complaint is governed by a specific set of rules with regard to form and content. The Complaint contains what are called claims for relief. These claims for relief are short and plain statements of fact which are contain enough factual particularity to tell both the Court and the other parties to the lawsuit, what the Plaintiff will be trying to prove. These facts should show why the Plaintiff is entitled to the relief claimed. At the end of the Complaint, the Plaintiff makes a written demand for judgment based upon the claims for relief it has pled. To summarize, the Complaint is the official document which, when filed with the Court, begins the action. The Complaint does three things: (1) it informs the parties and the Court of the factual basis for the action; (2) it states generally the reasons why the Plaintiff is entitled to relief; and (3) it makes a demand for judgment upon the Court.
There are no specific requirements as to the technical form of pleading the Complaint. Instead, North Carolina is what is commonly referred to as a notice-pleading jurisdiction. Rather than requiring technical proficiency, the Rules will deem a Complaint legally sufficient if it sets forth enough facts to sustain its legal case. While the Complaint is filed prior to the parties' participation in the evidence-gathering procedures of litigation, it must be pled with legal sufficiency in order to stand on its own until those procedures can be completed.
Next in our Litigation series: Litigation: Significance of the Complaint and Serving the Summons and Complaint