Filing a lawsuit with the court is the first step any plaintiff in a civil case must take to ask the court to decide a dispute. These first papers filed with the court identify who you are suing, the basis for your lawsuit, and the court in which your lawsuit is filed. Taking this step causes the court to create a file for your case, and issue a case number.
This guide provides general information and resources pertaining to filing a civil lawsuit in a California Superior Court. The steps for filing a lawsuit in small claims court, family law, probate, or a federal court are not discussed in this Resource Guide.
A lawsuit must be filed within a limited amount of time of whatever wrongdoing is alleged in the lawsuit. This limitation is referred to as the statute of limitations. Most of these limitations are defined in the Code of Civil Procedure (CCP) beginning at section 335 and ending at
The length of the statute of limitations for several types of common actions in California include:
- Personal injury or wrongful death: 2 years (CCP §335.1).
- Damage to personal property: 3 years (CCP §338).
- Breach of a written contract: 4 years (CCP §337).
- Breach of an oral contract: 2 years (CCP §339).
Determining the appropriate statute of limitations in a case can be deceptively complex. Additionally, research is often required to determine the exact date the statute started running.
Additional restrictions exist if the defendant is a government entity, as government entities and their employees are generally immune from lawsuits that seek damages. In some cases the government is required to waive this immunity, but only if a prospective plaintiff timely files an appropriate claim under the California Government Claims Act (Govt. Code §§900 et seq.). The time limit to file a claim is often much shorter than the statute of limitations for a private individual, typically six months or less.
Other types of lawsuits, such as lawsuits under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (Govt. Code §§12900 et seq), can only be heard if a timely claim is filed with the appropriate administrative body, such as the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
Because the failure to file within the statute of limitations, or failure to file a required claim in a timely manner is typically fatal to a case, one of your first research goals should be to determine the applicable statute limitations and whether a claim requirement exists in your case.
CHOOSING THE CORRECT COURT
As a plaintiff, you have the ability to choose to file a lawsuit, and some degree of choice over where the lawsuit is filed. Typically, a lawsuit is filed in your choice of:
- The county where the real property (i.e. land) that is the subject of the lawsuit is
- The county where the accident or other wrongdoing that is the subject of the lawsuit took place (CCP §393);
- The county where any defendant lives at the time the lawsuit is filed; (CCP §395);
- The county where the contract that is the subject of the lawsuit was to be performed
(CCP §393); or
- The county where defendant corporation, LLC, or other business entity has its principal place of business (CCP §395.5).
A contract may also specify the court that will hear any disputes related to the contract.
If the lawsuit arises out of a loan or other extension of credit that was primarily for personal or household use (Civil Code §395(b)), a retail installment contract (Civil Code §1812.10), or is over a financed automobile (Civil Code §2984.4) the plaintiff must file and serve a Declaration of Venue stating the facts that allow the case to be heard in the county in which the lawsuit is being filed (Civil Code §396a). You can find a sample Declaration of Venue on the Forms, Motions & Pleadings page of our website at http://www.saclaw.org/pages/forms-page.aspx.
PREPARING THE COMPLAINT
To begin a lawsuit, a plaintiff typically files three forms: a Civil Case Cover Sheet, a Summons, and a Complaint. The Summons and Civil Case Cover Sheet are mandatory Judicial Council forms, and must be used in all cases. The Complaint might be filed on a Judicial Council form(s), 28 line pleading paper, or some combination of the two.
Each lawsuit must state facts that would allow the court to award a judgment to the plaintiff under at least one theory recognized by the court. Each of these theories is called a "cause of action." It is possible for the Complaint to have more than one cause of action. If the Complaint is drafted on a Judicial Council form, the Judicial Council has created several forms for common causes of action that may be attached.
Fill–in–the–blanks forms are available for filing several types of common lawsuits:
These forms are available on the internet at http://www.courts.ca.gov/forms.htm, on the library computers using USCourtForms, or may be photocopied from a form book in the library.
The Complaint may be drafted using the Judicial Council forms listed above, or, if these forms do not meet your needs, it may be drafted on 28-line pleading paper, which may be created in most modern word processors or downloaded from the library's website at http://www.saclaw.org/pages/forms-page.aspx.
A version pre-formatted for Sacramento County Superior Court is available at http://www.saclaw.org/uploads/SacramentoPleadingWeb.doc.
COPYING AND FILING THE COMPLAINT
To start your lawsuit, you must file the lawsuit with the court. In Sacramento, civil filing is in Room 102 on the first floor of the courthouse located at 720 Ninth Street, Sacramento.
After completing and signing your forms/pleadings, make two additional copies of your documents, and assemble your packet for filing as follows:
- Original Civil Case Cover Sheet (form CM-010), and two copies
- Original Summons (form SUM-100), and two copies
- Original Complaint with all causes of action and attachments, and two copies.
In Sacramento, the original of each multiple-page document is not stapled, while each of the copies is stapled. Sacramento County Superior Court Local Rule 2.02. Each county has its own rules regarding this, so if you are filing in another court, be sure to check that court's rules. In counties that use physical files for documents, rather than scanning them, originals must be two-hole punched at the top of the page. Two-hole punching in Sacramento is optional.
When you file your complaint, the court will collect your filing fee. As of the revision date of this document, filing fees ranged between $225 and $395. You can check the current filing fees in Sacramento at http://www.saccourt.ca.gov/fees/docs/fee-schedule.pdf
If you cannot afford to pay the filing fee, you may submit a request to waive your court fees at the time you file. For instructions on how to complete these documents with sample forms, see the Law Library's Step-by-Step Guide on Fee Waivers on our website at http://www.saclaw.org/pages/fee-waiver.aspx.
The court will keep your original documents, and will stamp the copies with an endorsement and case number and return the copies to you, along with several other documents the court provides.
Once you have stamped copies of any of your documents, your next step will be to arrange to have a copy of every document filed and received from the filing window, excluding any request and order to waive filing fees, served on each defendant in your case. For instructions on how to serve these documents with sample forms, see the Law Library's Step-by-Step Guide on Personal Service on our website at http://www.saclaw.org/pages/personal-service.aspx.
For instructions for completing a Complaint using fill–in–the–blanks forms, see Win Your Lawsuit, Ch. 5, KFC 968 .Z9 D86 (Self-Help) and on the library's computers using Nolo Ebooks.
Consult the following resources for sample pleading-paper Complaints as well as information regarding other causes of action:
California Forms of Pleading and Practice.
KFC 1010 .A65 and on the library's computers using the Lexis-Nexis CD.
- Contract, Vol. 13, Ch. 140
- Claim and Delivery, Vol. 12, Ch. 119
- Negligence, Vol. 33, Ch. 380
- Automobiles, Vol. 8, Ch.s 80-92
- Products Liability, Vol. 40, Ch. 460
- Premises Liability, Vol. 36, Ch. 421
- Conversion, Vol. 13, Ch. 150
- Injunctions, Vol. 26, Ch. 303
- Libel and Slander, Vol. 30, Ch. 340
- Partition of Real Property, Vol. 35, Ch. 397
- Medical Malpractice, Vol. 36, Ch. 415
- Attorney Professional Liability, Vol. 7, Ch. 76
California Practice Guide: Civil Procedure Before Trial. Vol. 1, Ch. 7.
KFC 995 .W45 and on the library's computers using Westlaw.
Litigation By the Numbers. Ch. 1. KFC 995 .G67, Pgs. 1-6 to 1-20.
California Civil Practice: Procedure. Vol. 2, Ch. 9.
KFC 995 .A65 B3 and on the library's computers using Westlaw.
Discussion 7:1 to 7:51
Forms 7:52 to 7:62
Statutes of Limitations volume
California Civil Procedure Before Trial. Vol. 2, Ch. 25.
KFC 995 .C34 and on the library's computers using OnLaw.
Discussion Ch. 15
Forms 15:35 to 15:48
California Causes of Action KFC 1003 .C35
California Jurisprudence 3d (CalJur 3d) KFC 80 .C35
updated 05/11 en