How to initiate a lawsuit in the Circuit Courts or District Courts of Maryland

By JD Howlette Law
Manilla folders with a lawsuit sticker on them

Starting a lawsuit is no simple task, especially for those who are forced to represent themselves due to the financial costs associated with hiring a lawyer. A successful lawsuit requires a detailed understanding of the substantive and procedural rules that must be followed precisely throughout the court proceedings, beginning at the complaint drafting stage and continuing all the way through the date of trial. We've created this informational guide to inform those without legal representation about key rules for drafting and filing a complaint in the state courts of Maryland. Be sure to subscribe to our Blog and Newsletter to receive alerts when additional guides are posted.

Overview of Maryland Court System

The Maryland court system has four levels that consists of two trial courts and two appellate courts. At the trial court level, there are the district courts and the circuit courts. These courts hear evidence and render judgments based on the facts presented by the parties.

The appellate courts, on the other hand, review a trial court’s actions and decisions to determine whether the trial judge properly followed/applied the law. The appellate courts are comprised of the Court of Special Appeals (an intermediate appellate court) and the Court of Appeals (the highest court). The Court of Appeals is commonly referred to as the supreme court in other states. There is also a specialized court called the Orphans’ Court, which handles wills, estates, and other probate matters, in addition to limited aspects of guardianship.

How does someone start a lawsuit in Maryland?

First, you must prepare a complaint. The person preparing and filing the complaint is referred to as the “plaintiff” and the other party is referred to as the “defendant.” In Maryland, a complaint must contain:

  1. A clear and concise statement of the facts that give rise to a legal cause of action;

  2. A demand for relief;

    1. Note, if the plaintiff seeks a monetary award that is $75,000 or less, then the demand for relief paragraph must state the specific amount sought. If seeking more than $75,000, then demand must set forth a general statement that the amount sought exceeds $75,000.

  3. A signature by the party or the party’s attorney;

  4. The signatory’s address, telephone number, facsimile number (if any), and email address; and

  5. If applicable, the party’s attorney’s identifying Attorney Number.

The first page of the complaint must also contain a caption that identifies: (a) the name of the parties; (b) the address of the parties, if known; (c) the name of the court; and (4) the document title (i.e., Complaint).

Practice Tip: In drafting the complaint, be sure that each factual allegation is set out in a separate numbered paragraph and that each cause of action is outlined in a separately numbered count (e.g., Count I: Negligence, Count II: Breach of Contract, etc.).

What county should the complaint be filed in?

A plaintiff is generally required to file the complaint in the county where the defendant either: (1) resides; (2) carries on a regular business; (3) is employed; (4) habitually engages in a vocation; or (5) maintains its principal office, if the defendant is a corporation. (Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 6-201). In addition to the complaint, the plaintiff is generally required to complete an information report (generally a Civil Non-Domestic Case Information Report) that provides the clerk of court with pertinent information about the parties and the legal causes of action so that the case can be assigned to the appropriate division of the court. The information report is filed with the complaint.

Should the complaint be filed in the district court or the circuit court?

It depends. If you are seeking more than $30,000 in monetary damages, the complaint must be filed in the circuit court. If the amount is between $5,000 and $30,000, the complaint may be filed in either the circuit court or the district court. And if the amount is less than $5,000, the complaint must be filed in the district court.

Do I have a right to a jury trial?

Either party (plaintiff or defendant) generally has the right to a jury trial in cases where the amount in controversy is $15,000 or more. But a party must affirmatively request or demand a trial by jury at the start of a case. Note, though, jury trials are not available in district court.

Can the complaint be filed online?

Yes, but only in the counties that allow for electronic filing (known as “e-filing”). Currently, e-filing is available in the following counties: Allegany, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Calvert, Caroline, Carroll, Cecil, Charles, Dorchester, Frederick, Garrett, Harford, Howard, Kent, Montgomery, Queen Anne’s, Somerset, St. Mary’s, Talbot, Washington, Wicomico, and Worcester. Visit Maryland Electronic Courts (MDEC) for more information.

In the counties that have not adopted e-filing, you must file the initiating documents (i.e., the complaint, civil cover sheet, and any attachments) with the court by either delivering hard copies in person to the clerk’s office or mailing copies of the documents to the clerk’s office.

Is there a fee to file a complaint with the court?

Yes, all courts charge a filing fee. Generally, you are required to pay the filing fee at the same time the case initiation documents are filed with the court. For cases initiated in the circuit courts, the filing fee for civil cases is generally $165. For the district court, the filing fee is $34.00 for small claims cases and $46.00 for large claims actions.

What happens after the complaint is filed with the court?

After you file the initiating documents with the court, the clerk of the court will prepare a summons and send it to you. Then, you have 60 days to serve the defendant with copies of the case initiating documents and summons. If you are unable to successfully serve the defendant within the deadline, you may make a written request to the clerk of court to renew the summons (at which point, you'll have another 60 days to serve the defendant).

Remember, you must serve the defendant with copies of: (1) the summons; (2) the complaint; and (3) all other papers filed with the complaint.

Be sure to subscribe to our Blog and Newsletter to receive our next article on How to Serve Process on a Defendant in Maryland.