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Filing Your Complaint

How to Start a Civil Lawsuit

The first step in filing a lawsuit is to prepare a complaint. The Court has specialized forms available for filing complaints for employment discrimination and appealing a denial of Social Security benefits, as well as a general complaint form. You are not required to use these Forms, but you may find it helpful to look them over even if you do not wish to use them.

There are a few simple concepts you must get to know and understand. The Plaintiff is the person who files the lawsuit. The Defendant is the person who is being sued. As a pro se litigant, you enjoy every right entitled to you under the law. Pro se litigants are expected to follow/abide by the rules that govern the practice of law in the Federal Courts. Pro Se Litigants should be familiar with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Local Rules of this Court.

Before you file, you should consider whether the Court has the power to decide your case. This is called jurisdiction. There is a difference between State Court and Federal Court in what types of cases (lawsuits) they can decide. State Court has general/broad jurisdiction, and Federal Court has limited/specific jurisdiction. Under Federal Court jurisdiction, the two main types of cases are Federal Question Cases and Diversity Cases.

  • Federal Question Cases: are cases where the issue involves violation of Federal Law (see 28 U.S.C. § 1331)
  • Diversity Cases: are cases where the Plaintiff and Defendant are citizens of different states and the amount in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75,000.00, exclusive of interest and costs. (see 28 U.S.C. § 1332)

The federal district courts, such as this one, do not have jurisdiction to consider “appeals” from state court. This means you cannot “appeal” an unfavorable state court judgment to this Court.

Privacy Notice

All documents filed with the Court are available to the public on the Internet through PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) and through CM/ECF, the Court’s case management/electronic case filing system. Certain personal identifying information should be removed from all documents before submitting them to the Court for filing.

Before filing any document, please omit any sensitive information. Complete information on Privacy Protection for Filings Made with the Court is located in Rule 5.2 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. This rule prohibits the inclusion of personal identifying information like Social Security Numbers, taxpayer identification numbers, financial account numbers, full birth dates, or the names of minor children in any filing. A person filing any document containing their own personal identifying information waives the protection of Rule 5.2(a) by filing the document without removing that information and/or not filing the material under seal.

Ways to File

There are four ways for you to file your legal documents with the Court:  (1) by using the Court’s Electronic Document Submission (“EDS”) system; (2) by mail; (3) by placing them in the dropbox in the courthouse lobbies, which are accessible 24 hours a day; and (4) in person with the Clerk’s Office during the hours the courthouses are open to the public.

To file by EDS, please see the information about EDS on the Court’s website, available here. To use EDS, you will be required to provide an email address for service of Court orders, as well as documents filed by other parties in the case, and to upload documents using a computer for transmission to the Court.

To file in person, by dropbox, or by mail, you may submit your completed materials to the Clerk’s Office at the following addresses:

     Clerk of Court, EDPa
     James A. Byrne U.S. Courthouse
     Room 2609
     601 Market Street
     Philadelphia, PA 19106

     Clerk of Court, EDPa
     Edward N. Cahn U.S. Courthouse & Federal Building
     504 W. Hamilton Street
     Allentown, PA 18101

If you are filing a new case, after your complaint is docketed, the Clerk’s Office will send you a notice with information about your case number, assigned Judge, and guidelines about representing yourself. You may review that notice here. If you provide your email address, the Court will send orders and other notices that issue in your case to your email address instead of your mailing address.


You will have to pay the applicable fees to file your civil case. You can find information about the fees and how to pay them here.

If you cannot afford to pay the fees, you must file a motion to proceed in forma pauperis (IFP). In forma pauperis (IFP) is Latin for “in the form of a pauper.” IFP status is generally granted to those who the Court determines do not have the resources to pay the fees. Forms for filing a motion to proceed in forma pauperis are available on the Court’s website. Separate procedures may apply for prisoners who are seeking to proceed in forma pauperis.

Helpful Hints

  1. Read everything you get from the court and the opposing party right away, including the papers you get from the Clerk’s Office when you file your complaint. It is very important that you know what is going on in your case and whether you have deadlines.
  2. Meet every deadline. If you do not know exactly how to do something, try to get help and do your best. It is more important that you turn things in on time than that you do everything perfectly. You can lose your case if you miss your deadlines. If you need more time to do something, ask the Court in writing by filing a motion for extension of time as soon as you know that you will need it.
  3. Use your own words and be as clear as possible. You do not need to try to sound like a lawyer. Be specific about the facts that are important to your lawsuit.
  4. Always keep all of your paperwork. Keep copies of everything you send out. Know where your papers are so that you can use them if you need them to prove your case.
  5. Consider having someone else read your papers before you file them. Ask that person if they understand what you wrote. If they did not understand, you may want to rewrite your papers and explain yourself more clearly. The Judge may not get to hear your explanation in person and may only have your papers to rely on when making decisions about your case.
  6. You are required to diligently prosecute your lawsuit. Unless and until you hire an attorney to represent you, it is your responsibility to do everything necessary to prepare your case for trial. This includes, but is not limited to, responding to discovery requests and motions. It is also your responsibility to try your case in court.
  7. You must keep the Court and defendant(s) advised of any change in your address or telephone number. The Court’s Local Rules require you to inform the Court of your new address within fourteen days of an address change.
  8. Include your case number and the case name on everything that you file with the Court.