• January 3, 2013
Photograph by Peter Rivera

Photograph by Peter Rivera

As all civil litigators know and as most people appreciate on some level, a formal legal complaint initiating a lawsuit is a technical document.  Its basic purpose may vary from case to case, depending on case strategy.  In some cases they function like press releases, intended to make a splash and to get some ink.   In other and in most cases, however, the point is to say as little as possible to make a formal legal complaint for at least two reasons:

(1) This is what the rules require (“a short and plain statement of the claim“); and

(2) In a legal complaint, “everything you say can and will be used against you,” to coin a term from criminal procedure, by your adversaries (if at all possible and in ways you might not predict early on in litigation) so you probably want to keep it short and plain to avoid a self-inflicted set-back at some later time in the lawsuit.

As a practical matter, what does this mean?  It probably means that one should not have one’s client draft the complaint, particularly clients who feel passionate about the subject matter and who might want to vent an indignant and outraged screed rather than to plead.

The first federal case in the District of Minnesota in 2013 is the case of Walker, et al. v. Stonemill Farms Community Association, a case brought in state court but then removed to federal court because it makes a federal claim (along with several claims under state law).

Unfortunately for the Plaintiff Walkers, they are in a pitched battle with neighbors over yard use.  On the one hand, the case appears to be about a trampoline, a basketball court, a “play station,” and a willow tree.  On the other hand, there may be deep shadowy under-currents leading the Plaintiffs to believe that the case is about something else entirely: race.

Without regard to the merits of the Walkers’ lawsuit, it seems clear that the complaint might have benefited from some pruning.  It is an excessively detailed saga.  The “tell” seems to be in a typographical error in Para. 19:

On October 26, 2012, Mr. Walker I replied and again referred to the pictures Plaintiffs showed the Board on the 18th and explained that the current trees Plaintiffs had installed were over 5 feet tall, taller than the trampoline safety netting and would grow at approximately two feet per year.

(Emphasis added.)  There is a hint that a passionate litigant may have played a large role in drafting the complaint.  It is understandable that litigants may wish to save money by doing legal work themselves; and lawyers may wish to save time and have their clients take care of some of the work.  Moreover, with regard to a complaint, the client, obviously, is more likely to have knowledge of the factual allegations.

Nevertheless, a legal complaint is a critical legal document.  It is the plaintiff’s self-introduction to the Court, to the adversaries, to the opposing lawyers.  It is the organizational document from which the plaintiff’s case will grow.  You should consider  leaving the job to the legal equivalent of a qualified arborist when germinating the seed of the suit so that the case is most likely to grow into something robust.  This is more difficult when the seedling is within a rambling bramble.

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