Rule 3 – Commencing an Action

A civil action is commenced by filing a complaint with the court.

Summary and Explanation

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 3 is succinct and fundamental, stating: “A civil action is commenced by filing a complaint with the court.”

This rule sets forth the basic procedural step required to initiate a civil lawsuit in the federal courts of the United States. Here’s a breakdown of its implications and the process it entails:

  1. Initiation of Civil Action: The rule specifies that the formal process of starting a civil lawsuit begins when the plaintiff (the party bringing the suit) files a complaint with the appropriate federal district court. The complaint is a legal document that outlines the basis of the court’s jurisdiction, the allegations against the defendant(s), and the specific relief or damages the plaintiff seeks.
  2. Legal and Procedural Significance:
  • Jurisdiction: Filing the complaint is crucial for establishing the court’s jurisdiction over the case. It includes information necessary to determine whether the court has authority to hear the case, based on factors like the subject matter and the parties involved.
  • Notice to Defendant: Once the complaint is filed, the court will issue a summons to be served on the defendant(s), notifying them of the lawsuit and outlining the steps they must take to respond. This process ensures that defendants are given fair notice and an opportunity to defend against the allegations.
  • Statutes of Limitations: The filing date of the complaint is also important for statutes of limitations purposes. These laws set deadlines for bringing lawsuits, and filing the complaint within the applicable timeframe is necessary to avoid dismissal of the case for being time-barred.
  1. Document Requirements and Content: The complaint must meet specific requirements detailed in other Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, such as Rule 8, which describes the general rules of pleading. It should clearly state the grounds for the court’s jurisdiction, provide a short and plain statement of the claim showing the plaintiff is entitled to relief, and demand the specific type of relief sought.
  2. Case Management and Progression: After the complaint is filed, the case enters the court system, and subsequent procedural steps are governed by further Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. These include rules on serving the complaint, defendants’ responses, discovery processes, pre-trial procedures, and trial.

In essence, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 3 marks the critical starting point of a civil litigation process in federal courts, establishing a straightforward yet pivotal procedure for seeking judicial redress. It signifies the transition from a dispute to a formal legal action, setting in motion the mechanisms of the federal judiciary to address and resolve civil claims.


(As amended Apr. 30, 2007, eff. Dec. 1, 2007.)

Notes of Advisory Committee on Rules—1937

1. Rule 5(e) defines what constitutes filing with the court. 2. This rule governs the commencement of all actions, including those brought by or against the United States or an officer or agency thereof, regardless of whether service is to be made personally pursuant to Rule 4(d), or otherwise pursuant to Rule 4(e). 3. With this rule compare [former] Equity Rule 12 (Issue of Subpoena—Time for Answer) and the following statutes (and other similar statutes) which provide a similar method for commencing an action: U.S.C., Title 28: §45 [former] (District courts; practice and procedure in certain cases under interstate commerce laws). §762 [see 1402] (Petition in suit against United States). §766 [see 2409] (Partition suits where United States is tenant in common or joint tenant). 4. This rule provides that the first step in an action is the filing of the complaint. Under Rule 4(a) this is to be followed forthwith by issuance of a summons and its delivery to an officer for service. Other rules providing for dismissal for failure to prosecute suggest a method available to attack unreasonable delay in prosecuting an action after it has been commenced. When a Federal or State statute of limitations is pleaded as a defense, a question may arise under this rule whether the mere filing of the complaint stops the running of the statute, or whether any further step is required, such as, service of the summons and complaint or their delivery to the marshal for service. The answer to this question may depend on whether it is competent for the Supreme Court, exercising the power to make rules of procedure without affecting substantive rights, to vary the operation of statutes of limitations. The requirement of Rule 4(a) that the clerk shall forthwith issue the summons and deliver it to the marshal for service will reduce the chances of such a question arising.

Committee Notes on Rules—2007 Amendment

The caption of Rule 3 has been amended as part of the general restyling of the Civil Rules to make them more easily understood and to make style and terminology consistent throughout the rules. These changes are intended to be stylistic only

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