Anatomy of a Lawsuit – Part 2: The Complaint

In my introductory Blog article in February, I outlined the various stages of litigation. The “Complaint” is the opening act of a long play. As will be explained, the Complaint shapes the litigation battlefield at the outset. It sets the tone for things to come.
When a client comes for a consultation with BPE and it’s determined that a lawsuit needs to be filed to protect the rights of the client, the client and lawyer must work collaboratively to gather facts which forms the basis for the Complaint. It is critical that the client relay all information to the attorney, whether the client believes the facts/information are important or not. The lawyer then questions the client to gain additional insight as to what facts may be beneficial to the case, but also which facts could be damaging to the case. A good lawyer will see the case from both sides – knowing a case’s weaknesses can better prepare both lawyer and client for the litigation to come. Expectations are then set and agreed upon at the beginning.
The Complaint is filed by the Plaintiff. The responding party is called the Defendant. The Plaintiff or Defendant can be an individual, business entity, governmental agency.
The Complaint sets forth the facts of the case, the “causes of action” and the prayer for relief.
The factual portion of the Complaint is critical: often a strong recitation of the facts and supporting evidence can place the defendant on notice that the client has a strong case and is likely to prevail. Settlement discussions often follow as the defendant may not wish to expend the time or money defending a weak defense position.
The Causes of Action are the various legal grounds upon which the Plaintiff seeks relief from the defendant. For example, a client comes to BPE, and advises the lawyer that she owns real property with a friend. The house is being used as a rental. The client wants to sell the house, but the friend refuses to do so. The ’causes of action’ in this particular case would be: 1) Partition and Accounting, 2) Declaratory relief and 3) Quiet Title. The Partition cause of action seeks judicial approval of the sale of the property, and the Accounting seeks a judicial determination as to how the proceeds of the sale should be distributed between the parties. If the friend claims that she alone owns the house, then the client would seek to have a Judge declare who owns the property, then Quiet the title to the property as to both parties.
The Prayer for Relief sets forth what the client is seeking, and can take various forms. In the example above, the client would pray (or request) that the property be sold, that the funds be distributed, or that any title issues be resolved. The prayer in some instances can seek reimbursement of attorneys fees. Or, the Plaintiff could seek money for damages caused to Plaintiff by Defendant. A request for monetary damages could arise out of a personal injury lawsuit. Yet damages can also take the form of stopping a defendant from doing a certain act or conduct (injunctive relief) – stop interfering with Plaintiff’s rightful use of his land.
Finally, a Complaint can be either “unverified” or “verified”. An Unverified Complaint is signed by the attorney and filed with the Court. As will be discussed in later blog posts, in response the defendant would file an Unverified Answer, which lists generic defenses to the Complaint. However, if a Complaint is verified, this means that the plaintiff signs the Complaint under the penalty of perjury attesting that all allegations are true. The defendant must then file a Verified Answer, forcing him to admit or deny each allegation at the outset. This often causes the defendant to more carefully examine their position at an early stage of the case, again prompting settlement discussions.
Since our creation 20+ years ago, BPE Law has represented our clients in litigation both as plaintiffs as well as defendants.  While most of our matters concern business, real estate, or family disputes over estates, our long experience and depth of talent enables us to be especially effective in litigation as well as settlement.

If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact me at awmunn@bpelaw or call (916) 966-2260 to set up a consultation with me.

This article is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be taken as legal advice.  Every case requires review of specific facts and history, and a formal agreement for service.  Please feel free to contact us if you need legal advice and are interested in seeing if we can help you.