How Do I Start a Lawsuit Without an Attorney?


Drafting the Complaint

You start a lawsuit by filing a complaint. In some circumstances, you file a petition or a motion.

The court has several complaint forms that you may use in drafting your complaint. The forms are available online and at the Pro Se Intake Unit. You may also write your own complaint without using a court form. 

All complaints must be in English on 8-1/2” x 11” paper and include:

  1. a caption with the court’s name,
  2. the title “COMPLAINT” next to the caption,
  3. a statement of jurisdiction,
  4. claims in numbered paragraphs, each limited as far as practicable to a single set of facts,
  5. the relief sought,
  6. the words “JURY TRIAL DEMANDED” if you want the case decided by a jury at trial,
  7. your signature, address, e-mail address, and telephone number.

See Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 (General Rules of Pleading); Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10 (Form of Pleadings). 

Complaints and all other documents submitted for filing must comply with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11 (Signing Pleadings, Motions, and Other Papers; Representations to the Court; Sanctions). 

Filing and Serving the Complaint

Once you have drafted your complaint, you must submit it either in person or by mail to the Pro Se Intake Unit, along with the filing fees or an application to proceed without prepayment of fees (in forma pauperis). Prisoners must also include a Prisoner Authorization form.

If you pay the filing fees, you must submit a completed summons to the Pro Se Intake Unit for the clerk to sign, seal, and issue. See Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(b). Once the summons is issued, you must follow the procedures in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4 to serve the summons and complaint. 

If you request permission to proceed without prepayment of fees and your request is granted, the Pro Se Intake Unit will complete and issue a summons only if the assigned judge directs it to do so in an order of service.

Keeping Your Address Updated

All litigants, including pro se litigants, are required to let the court and other parties to the lawsuit know if their contact information changes. This is to make sure that all case filings can be sent to the correct mail (or email) address. For this reason, you must inform the Pro Se Intake Unit in writing of any change to your contact information.