How to Structure a Complaint — don’t be chatty

On of the things that comes up when I am working with a client on a complaint is that they want to be chatty!  Also in briefs, even when I have a 20 page limit and I have to cite caselaw, they want to dump the case law and get chatty!  No, it does not work that way.  Most business clients with a business degree understand and have no problems with that, but your average client that want to regurgitate all about her kitchen sink yesterday–yikes!

So, for all your pro se’ers out there and those of you permitted to have some input in your attys briefs, this post is dedicated to you.

And you know what?  I also have to dedicate it to new law school grads!  Because law schools are officially nuts and have no bearing in the real world, I have to spend hours and hours explaining basic procedure, steps, dealing with court hours employees, the details of depositions and structuring cases.  You name any practical, anything nuts and bolts, anything necessary to win your case and you can bet that a fresh law grad never heard of it.

Forget the bar exam–what about the practicalities of working in a law environment.

Getting back to the topic, here are the steps:

1) pick your jurisdiction.  Federal court is for federal laws generally and you might get dismissed for bring state legal breaches and torts in federal court.  Federal court is a court of limited jurisdiction.  Fortunately, all of it’s rules (about 95%) are set forth clearly and concisely in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Evidence, but of course, some you will have to get from case law.  State court takes longer and is more messy.  Plus, the decisions can be not too great and much poorer and biased because the judge loves your OC who works for some big law firm he wants to join some day.  It can be disappointing.  But the best way to combat that is to show the court you have a good case, OC and his client is scum and lies all the time, and you will not lie.  After a while when you show you are trustworthy, the judge will likely warm up to you.

2) Watch your “limitations” period.  If you are at or near a deadline, there are some great lists on the internet for seeing what your deadline is based upon your “counts” or “causes of action.”  You might want to see an attorney or look up further case law for more information.  A case in your jurisdiction in your court is the best case for you to use.  In Chicago there is a fabulous law library open to the public on the 29th floor of the Daley center in Chicago.  The law librarians (most have a law degree, but may not be admitted to the bar), are typically very nice and helpful, having worked in a fairly stress free environment.

3)  Start writing the complaint.

A complaint is always “a clear and concise” statement of numbered facts and issue that will entitle you to the relief you are seeking.  It is not a time to be chatty.  It is not a time to write a novel, but if you want to attract attention to your case, writing a novel like John Howard Wyman did is a great idea.  He did a wonderful job.

 

a)  Title.  The title of your complaint should be the counts you are bringing.  For example “Complaint for 42 USC section 1983, Abuse of Process, Malicious Prosecution, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress”–it should name your basic counts.  If you are doing pro se try not to file more than 3 counts.  One or two is best.  I have a small law firm, and believe me, even with putting 3 attorneys on the case, it is hard to do 5 or 6 counts.  Don’t file more than you are willing to try.  You can change these around later by filing an “amended complaint” which often occurs after discovery and depositions and you see all the dirty tricks your opponent has pulled behind your back.

b) the next step is a basic introduction naming all the counts and the defendants and a one sentence statement of why you are bringing the law suit, ie, “wrongful guardianship of a competent woman”

c) Jurisdiction and Venue.  If you are filing in federal court, this will be trickier because the statute should say you can file there.  Not all federal claims can be brought in federal court.  Federal court is a court of limited jurisdiction because the states have rights to glom on to probably 90% of the litigation out there with their crazy, elected (and often obviously biased) judges and court system.  Federal court is a special exception so you will have to find it in a statue or court ruling you can bring your claim there.  Often it is the opposite where a federal case says your claim, even if federal is “not important enough” to get into federal court and you are stuck in state court.  The good news is, state courts rarely hand out sanctions, the judge has to be really mad at you or really biased.  Most of the time you and your opponent can say anything and the court just sighs.  So you will have to say “jurisdiction is proper because all the defendants reside in this jurisdiction and the acts complained of occurred in this jurisdiction.”  Then a statement of venue (that’s the best court in the jurisdiction, and the statement is typically “venue is proper because all the actions complained of took place in this court’s area.”

c) next, bring a count one.  Carefully research your count one and find out what the “elements” of that count are.  Then read through a few cases and try to find one that is either very close or exactly like yours.  Make sure you have made a list of the elements.  Write down a short list of the facts in your case that would make up those elements. Save that list for later.

c) bring your next 2 or 3 counts via the same process.  Find a case and/or statute in your jurisdiction or state.  Write down the elements.  Write down the basic and concise fact that would comprise your claim against the defendants.

d) start writing.  take your clear concise list of facts and start a section entitiled “statement of facts and parties” or introduce the parties first and then the facts that comprise elements of your cliam.

e) write up a count .  Count I for violation of 42 USC section 1983.  Refer to what facts support those claims by paragraph number, say paragraphs 1 to 20, etc.  At this point you might want to add in a few more (2 or 3 please, not a dissertation), that help establish that claim.  Close this section with what relief you want.  Do you want an injunctions, actual damages, punitive damages, exceptional damages.  Add in attorneys fees if you will have those by hiring an attorney that will appear for you at a later day.  Perhaps you want your attorney only for trial and the statute allows attorneys fees.  You can do that.  If you find you are entitled to and want an injunction because you found it in a case, say that, ie, pursuant to case law in Illinois, Plaintiff asks for an injunction prohibiting “the filing of a CCPA211″ in the future.  If you can get punitive or exemplary damages pursuant to statute, write down the statute cite that entitles you to that, ie, pursuant to 755 ILCS sec X, Plaintiff asks for exemplary damage because the defendants behavior was extreme, cruel, willful, wanton and without justifiable excuse.  take this language directly from a case or statute, don’t just make it up and stick it in there.

Keep on writing additional counts until you are done.  Remember, you might have to try these, so if you are pro se, pick your two or three best and keep it short and simple.

At the end, write up a ‘conclusion” restating all the counts, the defendants you are bringing each count against (not all defendants might have engaged in all the illegal activites prohibited for each count, some might have statutory or case law immunity from liability).

Give a summary of this, eg:

a)  Plaintiff seeks an injurnction, treble damages and reasonable attorneys fees for Patent infringment under XXX USC secion XX against Defendants X and Y;

b) Plaintiffs seeks actual and exemplary damages for Trademark Infringement under XXX USC section XX against defendants A and B;

and so forth.  you can even add in c) and for all other just and equitable relief as this court determines to be appropriate.

Now for the hard part for some of you, esp. those pro-se’ers out there.  If your complaint is over 20 pages, it is too long.  You weren’t paying attention to the rule “short, clear and consise statement of facts and issues that would make up a claim for relief.”  Go back and start cutting or the court will think you are crazy.  No one wants to read how it affected your pet in 3rd grade.  Get that stuff out.  Clear and concise, not chatty and gabby, and Oh, wouldn’t this be great to add in?  Nope.  The court and OC will be laughing at you.  One paragraph for your introductory summary; 2, maybe 3 pages for your “statement of facts”, one to 1.5 pages for each count.  One page for a conclusion.  So if you think your case is going to the US Supreme Court, 2 pages for an introduction, 5 pages for statement of facts and parties, 4 counts 2 pages each, and a one page conclusion, that’s still only 15 pages, get it?

Most courts limit briefs to 20 pages double spaced, so get used to writing in a very concise manner, just stating the facts.

I don’t think I have even seen a fresh law school grad that can properly write up a complaint.

Most pro se people can barely do this, but I think it’s because they just need good instructions.

take care
JoAnne

 

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