Complaint Definition

A document filed in court that starts a lawsuit. The party who files the complaint is called the plaintiff. The party being sued is called the defendant. In some states and in some types of legal actions, such as divorce, the complaint is called a "petition," and the person filing it is called the "petitioner." When it's filed, a complaint filing must be accompanied by a filing fee payable to the court clerk, unless the plaintiff asks a judge to waive the fee based on inability to pay. The plaintiff's complaint must be served on the defendant, who then must respond by filing a document called an answer.

The contents of a complaint will vary depending on where it's filed and what kind of case is involved. In general, though, the complaint describes:

  • the parties who are involved in the case
  • why the case is properly before the court where it was filed
  • the facts of the case
  • why the plaintiff is entitled to relief from the court against the defendant, and
  • the relief the plaintiff seeks.