To sue someone in Massachusetts, you have to file a complaint with the clerk of the court. A complaint is not a specific form. It is a document that contains a short statement of the facts showing your claim and why you are entitled to relief and a demand for judgment granting that relief. While the courts have forms that can be used as complaints for some types of actions, such as divorce, in general you have to draft the complaint yourself. This guide is an overview of the process of drafting a complaint for a civil action.
The process does not begin with actual drafting. Before you start to write, you should do the following:
- Determine the Type of Case You Have & Its Jurisdiction
An important step to take initially is to decide what your civil matter is about (i.e., a contract dispute, a landlord-tenant issue, a personal injury matter, a family law matter, a probate dispute, etc.). Based upon that information, you can then decide which court has the power to hear your case, i.e., District Court, Superior Court, Housing Court, Bankruptcy Court, Probate & Family Court, etc.
In Superior Court and District Court, jurisdiction over suits for money damages is determined by the amount of damages you request. The Superior Court has jurisdiction over cases involving more than $25,000. If there is no reasonable likelihood that the damages will be more than $25,000, the District Court has jurisdiction. If the amount of damages is $7,000 or less, most cases can be brought in Small Claims Court, a special session of the District Court.
If you need more detailed information about how to determine the jurisdiction of each court department, see Trial Court Information or the book Massachusetts Practice v.9 (Civil Practice) , sections 4:1 through 4:31.
- Determine the Venue of Your Case
You also need to decide where your case needs to be heard, i.e. the courthouse's geographic location. The proper venue could be the place (i.e., municipality or county) where a piece of land is located, or the place where one of the parties lives or has their business, for example. A discussion of how to determine venue is available in Massachusetts Practice v.9 (Civil Practice) , sections 5.1 through 5.11.
Use the Courthouse Locator to find the courts for your town.
Once you have determined what type of case you have, the appropriate jurisdiction, and the venue, you are ready to write the complaint.
The Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure, Rules 8-15 set forth the requirements for a complaint. While there are a few formalities that must be met, there are not any "magic words" required for a complaint. The rules provide you with a great degree of flexibility to tell your story in your complaint. The requirements of the rules are met so long as the complaint gives the defendant "fair notice of what the plaintiff's claims are and the grounds on which they rest." Mmoe v. Commonwealth , 393 Mass. 617, 621 (1985) .
In general, a complaint has six elements: caption, parties, statement of facts, statement of claims, request for relief, and jury demand. The substantive information in the complaint (everything other than the caption) must be formatted in numbered paragraphs, with each paragraph containing a separate complete thought or set of circumstances, as required by Rule 10(b) .
Some courts require that you include additional forms with the complaint. In the Superior Court, Mass. Superior Court Rule 29 requires that you file a along with your complaint. M.G.L. c. 218, s. 19A(a) requires that a complaint filed in District Court that requests money damages must include a statement of damages form .
Rule 10(a) states, "Every pleading shall contain a caption setting forth the name of the court, the county, the title of the action, the docket number, and a designation as in Rule 7(a) . In the complaint the title of the action shall include the names of all the parties, but in other pleadings it is sufficient to state the name of the first party on each side with an appropriate indication of other parties."
The body of a complaint usually begins with the identification of the plaintiffs and defendants. You should give the name of each party in separate numbered paragraphs. The parties' names must be accompanied by their "respective residences or usual places of business" Rule 10(d) . If you do know the residence or place of business of a party, you must say so in the paragraph with the party's name.
Statement of Facts
The statement of facts is the section of a complaint where you tell your story by stating the facts that resulted in the dispute with the defendants. You should tell your story in a straightforward manner that is "simple, concise, and direct." Rule 8(e) . The statement of facts should tell the complete story, but it does not have to include every detail. You do not have to provide evidence that the facts are true, and you should not include facts or evidence that do not relate directly to your claims against the defendants. A reader should be able to understand what happened, but should not have to wade through pages of detailed descriptions.
Statement of Claims
The statement of claims is the legal analysis of the story you told in the statement of facts. You should identify each claim (e.g. negligence, breach of contract, breach of warranty) separately in its own section of the complaint. For each claim, go through every element of the claim in separate paragraphs, stating the specific facts that establish each element. You do not have to set out or explain the legal theory on which the claim is based. This means you do not have to identify and explain the elements themselves; you can just give the facts that would satisfy each element.
Request for Relief
This section is where you tell the court what relief you should get if you win. The relief may be an award of damages, it may be an injunction to stop the defendants from acting or require them to act, or it may be something else allowed by statute. You can request multiple kinds of relief, either cumulatively (such as compensatory damages and punitive damages) or in the alternative (such as an injunction or damages). The court is not bound by the request for relief and can grant whatever relief you are entitled to if you win, even if you did not request it. Rule 54(c) . Still, it is a good idea to end your request for relief with a catchall paragraph that requests "such other relief as the Court deems just."
If your case is one that gives you a right to a trial by jury, Rule 38(b) requires you to serve a demand for a jury trial on the other parties in writing within ten days of the last pleading related to the case (usually the defendants' answer). If you do not meet the deadline to demand a jury trial, you waive your right to a jury trial. Rule 39(b) . To be sure that you do not waive your right to a jury trial, you should include a jury demand at the end of your complaint. The jury demand can be a single sentence stating something such as "Plaintiff demands trial by jury on all issues properly so tried."
The contents of each complaint vary depending upon what type of case it is and what court it is being filed in.
- Forms supplied by the court for use as a complaint are available on the court website at Massachusetts Court Forms
- For other sample complaints for specific claims, please consult a law librarian
Here is a partial list of sample complaint forms that are available in print in the law library:
- Am Jur Pleading and Practice Forms Annotated
- Civil Causes of Action in Massachusetts , MCLE, 2012
- Massachusetts Litigation Forms and Analysis , by Anthony Doniger, Law Cooperative, 1995-
- Massachusetts Pleading and Practice : Forms & Commentary, Bender, looseleaf. Volume 2 contains sample complaints on a wide variety of legal topics
- Massachusetts Practice v. 10-10C (Procedural Forms Annotated) , West, 2009, with supplement
- Massachusetts Superior Court Civil Practice Forms , MCLE, looseleaf
Last update: August 26, 2016