From: US Courts
A federal civil case involves a legal dispute between two or more parties. A civil action begins when a party to a dispute files a complaint, and pays a filing fee required by statute. A plaintiff who is unable to pay the fee may file a request to proceed in forma pauperis. If the request is granted, the fee is waived.
To begin a civil lawsuit in federal court, the plaintiff files a complaint with the court and “serves” a copy of the complaint on the defendant. The complaint describes the plaintiff’s damages or injury, explains how the defendant caused the harm, shows that the court has jurisdiction, and asks the court to order relief. A plaintiff may seek money to compensate for the damages, or may ask the court to order the defendant to stop the conduct that is causing the harm. The court may also order other types of relief, such as a declaration of the legal rights of the plaintiff in a particular situation.
There may be “discovery,” where the litigants must provide information to each other about the case, such as the identity of witnesses and copies of any documents related to the case. The purpose of discovery is to prepare for trial by requiring the litigants to assemble their evidence and prepare to call witnesses. Each side also may file requests, or “motions,” with the court seeking rulings on the discovery of evidence, or on the procedures to be followed at trial.
Discovery may include a deposition, requiring a witness to answer questions about the case before the trial. The witness answers questions from the lawyer under oath, in the presence of a court reporter, who produces a word-for-word account called a transcript.