How To File A Lawsuit In Federal Court

Written by J. Hirby and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

In the United States common law system, most cases involving civil complaints between individuals or business entities can be argued in county or circuit courts at the state level. Quite a few cases, however, end up before a federal district court. Choosing where to file a lawsuit is a matter of jurisdiction, which means that certain facts surrounding the case and characteristics of the parties involved must be considered prior to filing.

The types of civil actions heard by federal courts are pretty diverse. Many of the cases are “claims against the system,” which means that complaints are filed against government agencies or officials who have allegedly violated one or more federal laws. For example, a woman entering the U.S. at the border crossing point in Canada may file a complaint against Customs officers who damaged her car during an inspection.

It is important to remember that many federal laws have statutory equivalents through the doctrine of uniform laws. Federal courts have limited jurisdiction; the only cases they review exclusively are matters related to copyright, patents and federal taxes. Civil complaints must either relate to a federal question of law or involve plaintiffs and defendants residing in different states who will argue over claims exceeding $75,000. To this effect, it is better to ask an attorney about whether a civil case should be filed in federal district court.

Filing a Federal Lawsuit

Once the venue has been selected, the initial filing will require four documents:

1 - The complaint with the names and addresses of the parties, the jurisdiction, allegations, and desired relief.
2 – Civil cover sheet.
3 – Civil category sheet.
4 – Summons.

The filing fee for federal lawsuits is $400. The court may waive this fee if the correct request form is attached along with the initial filing packet.

Before federal plaintiffs are allowed to serve papers on defendants, the court will conduct a judicial review of the initial filing. A case that is granted to proceed will be assigned a civil action number and a clerk's stamp. Defendants must be properly notified of the claims against them by means of forms AO 398 and AO 399. If the complaint is filed against the government, this step is not necessary.

Defendants can choose to waive service and let the complaint continue; in most cases, however, service of process will be required. This step requires to serve a summons to appear in court plus a copy of the complaint on the defendants.

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