A complaint in the legal world refers to the first document that is filed by the plaintiff in a case. This document lists all of the facts and reasons why the plaintiff believes he is justified in bringing his case against the defendant. For example, a complaint filed in a civil case may detail the ways in which the plaintiff believes the defendant defrauded him, and why the plaintiff is entitled to a damages award as a result. To explore this concept, consider the following complaint definition.

Definition of Complaint


  1. The first document that is filed in a legal matter that details the facts and legal reasons that led the plaintiff to conclude he has a legitimate case against the defendant.


1350-1400       Middle English (compleynte)

Legal Complaint

A legal complaint, or civil complaint, is the first document filed in a case, and it is often served along with a summons. The purpose of a legal complaint is to lay out all of the facts and reasons why the plaintiff decided to bring the suit, along with the case law that supports his decision to bring the suit. Some of the information that is typically listed in these documents includes:

  • Allegations against the defendant
  • The specific laws the defendant allegedly violated
  • The facts that led to the lawsuit being filed
  • Plaintiff’s demands for the defendant to follow to make good on what he allegedly did wrong

According to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP), any sensitive information should be redacted, or scratched out, before a civil complaint is filed with the court. This includes any exhibits that may be attached to the document as well, which is not regular practice. Information that should be edited out of a complaint includes:

  • Social Security numbers (or Tax Identification Numbers)
  • Birthdays
  • Bank or credit account information
  • Children’s names, if the action involves a minor (initials should be used instead)

The person filing the lawsuit should either white-out or black-out sensitive text. There should also be a note on the paper to indicate that the information was, in fact, redacted.

Filing Under Seal

An alternative to redacting information in the complaint is to request that the court permit the document to be filed under seal. When a document is filed under seal, this means that the document will not become part of the public record. Documents that are not filed under seal are viewable by the public. However, if the information contained in the document is to remain confidential, then the court may grant a filing under seal.

The confidentiality of the information within the document may be temporary or permanent. For instance, in some cases, the filing party will specify when it is okay for the information in the document to be made public. However, in the event a complaint is filed with, say, someone’s Social Security number in it, this document will more than likely remain permanently under seal.

Criminal Complaint

A criminal complaint, also known as a felony complaint, is only slightly different from the civil version. Rather than an individual filing the document, a criminal complaint is typically filed against an individual by the government. However, some states do permit individuals to file criminal complaints as well.

A criminal complaint charges an individual with a crime. Normally, in a criminal case, the defendant is arrested first, then the police submit a report to the local prosecutor. The prosecutor then decides whether to file charges against the individual. His decision is based on whether there is enough evidence to charge that person with a crime, and whether the case is worth his time to prosecute it. In some states, however, such a document must be filed before the court will issue an arrest warrant.

Structure of a Complaint

The structure of a complaint is generally the same, no matter the action. In fact, there is a form available on every state’s website that a plaintiff can use to draft a complaint. He simply fills in the blanks with his own information, or uses the basic outline and tailors it to his own situation.

The structural elements that tend to remain the same include:

  • Caption – The caption includes the contact information for the individual who is filing the complaint or the lawyer who is filing on the individual’s behalf. The caption also includes the name of the court the complaint is being filed in, the parties’ names, and the name of the document.
  • Jurisdiction and Venue – This section explains why the court the complaint is being brought in is, in fact, the right court to hear the matter. For example, a complaint filed in a court in West Virginia may be filed there because the defendant lives in West Virginia.
  • Parties – The parties to the complaint, meaning the person or people who are suing, and the person or people being sued.
  • Causes of Action – This is where the plaintiff lists his reasons for bringing the action, and the law that supports his decision to sue. Each cause of action is accompanied by “counts,” which is a numbered list of allegations made under the law.
  • Injury – In this section, the plaintiff explains how the alleged actions of the defendant have caused him harm.
  • Demand for Relief – Finally, in this section, the plaintiff describes the kind of relief he is seeking in filing the lawsuit. The relief could be monetary or non-monetary in nature.

Complaint Example Involving an Unverified Criminal Complaint

An example of a complaint being the central issue of a case before a state’s Supreme Court is The People v. Harding, which was decided by the Supreme Court of Illinois in 1966. Here, Laverne Harding was arrested in November 1965 for the crime of reckless driving, to which he pled guilty. A week later, Harding was fined $200, plus costs, and was sentenced to 90 days in jail at the Illinois State Farm.

That same day, Harding requested from the court that an attorney be appointed for him. The court approved his request, and his attorney filed a motion, also that same day, for Harding’s sentence to be thrown out. The court granted this request, quashed the complaint, and discharged Harding. The prosecution appealed the court’s decision to the Supreme Court of Illinois, raising the question as to whether such a decision was unconstitutional.

In its decision, the Court noted that the complaint which charged Harding with the crime was an “Illinois Uniform Traffic Ticket and Complaint.” Harding’s motion to vacate his sentence made the argument that both Illinois’ state constitution and the U.S. Constitution required that a criminal complaint that included jail time as punishment be verified in order to be considered a valid document. The document filed against Harding was not verified, and so he argued that it was invalid, that the trial court did not have jurisdiction to hear the matter, and that the vacature of his sentence was proper.

The Supreme Court of Illinois ultimately rejected the prosecution’s appeal and ruled in Harding’s favor, stating:

“The adoption by this court of the rule which authorized the use of the unverified form of Illinois Uniform Traffic Ticket and Complaint was not intended to dispense with the statutory requirement of a verified complaint, and we hold that a defendant who does not waive, by plea of guilty or by proceeding to trial without objection, the defective verification of a complaint, is entitled to be prosecuted upon a complaint which states upon the oath of the complainant the facts constituting the offense charged. In the case before us the People were accorded an opportunity to file an amended complaint after the objection was raised. They did not do so, but elected to stand by the unverified complaint.

In this case the defendant had entered a plea of guilty. Ordinarily that plea would have waived his right to attack the sufficiency of the unverified complaint. But the motion to vacate alleged that the defendant had pleaded guilty without adequate admonition as to the consequences of his plea and in response to the arresting officer’s representation that the usual penalty for a first offense was a $25 fine.

In addition, the opinion of the trial judge indicated that he entertained doubts as to the mental competency of the defendant to stand trial. For the reasons stated the judgment of the circuit court of Carroll County is affirmed.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Exhibit – A document that is attached to a legal document that provides proof for the statements that have been made within that document.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Quash – To reject or declare void.
  • Summons – An order or citation to appear in court, or to appear before a judge or magistrate.
  • Vacature – The act of canceling or voiding a prior decision of the court.
  • Verification – The signing, or “verifying,” of a legal document to declare, under penalty of perjury, that its contents are true.
  • Warrant – A writ issued by a court or other legal official authorizing law enforcement or other agency to make an arrest, search a premises, or take some other action related to the administration of justice.