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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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is a partial list of sample complaint forms that are available in print in the law library: