How to File a Lawsuit

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on August 02, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

While filing a lawsuit in small claims court often requires little more than filling out a few forms and notifying the defendant, filing a civil lawsuit in federal court or a higher-level state court is a little bit more difficult.

In addition to proper forms and notice, you need to determine which court to file in, as well as how to write a complaint that conforms court rules.

To help you through this sometimes tough process, here is a step-by-step guide on how to locate what you need to file a lawsuit.

1. Decide whether you need to file in state or federal court. While federal court requires federal jurisdiction, almost any lawsuit can be filed in state court.

Also determine which court within the system you need to file in. This is called venue.

2. On the court's website, local the local rules. These rules explain what you need to include when filing a lawsuit.

3. Locate the rules explaining the commencement of an action and/or the form of pleadings. These rules will explain what your complaint must look like and contain in order to properly file a lawsuit.

4. On the website, locate any forms you may need to attach to your complaint.

5. Take the complaint and the forms to the courthouse to file with the clerk of the court. He will determine if all of your paperwork is present.

6. After you've filed a lawsuit, you need to serve the defendant. Because rules vary by jurisdiction, either the court website or the clerk of the court will be able to inform you how to provide proper service of process.

If you come up against any hurdles while trying to file a lawsuit on your own, consider reaching out to a local legal clinic. While they may not be able to represent you, they are often willing to point you in the right direction as well as check over your paperwork.

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