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Learn how to conduct research and gather information in order to document a complaint properly and secure effective resolution of it.


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  • What is documenting a complaint?

  • Why should you document a complaint?

  • Who should document complaints?

  • When should you document a complaint?

  • How do you document a complaint?

Mark Johnson was absolutely certain he was a victim of discrimination. A Black professor at a prestigious university, Mark was widely recognized as an expert in his field and an excellent teacher. He had just been granted tenure, and he and his wife - who also taught at the university - decided to buy a house in a leafy neighborhood where they could walk to work, and run home to check on their kids after school.

When Mark called real estate agents, they rhapsodized about the wonderful homes available that would just suit his needs. But when he and his family appeared in their offices, the homes had suddenly been sold, or had been taken off the market. He was sure there was a pattern here, but he had no proof. He decided that he needed to document what was happening, so that he could go to the state Commission Against Discrimination to file a complaint.

Mark first recorded, as best he could remember, his calls and visits to real estate agents, the descriptions of the houses they gave him over the phone, and the substance of their face-to-face conversations. Then he called his friend Richard, who was white, and explained the situation. He asked Richard to call the same agents with a request similar to Mark's, and report what happened.

Just as Mark had suspected, the agents touted what seemed to be the same houses to Richard as they had to Mark. They took Richard to see houses for sale in the neighborhood in question, and invited him to make an offer. When Mark called back, however, "to see if the situation had changed," as he put it to the agents, they said there were unfortunately still no houses available in that area. There were some lovely homes for sale in a neighborhood across town, however.

That was enough for Mark. He took his records, Richard's testimony, and his notes from the follow-up calls to the Commission Against Discrimination, which immediately issued a call for several real estate agents to appear at an exploratory hearing. Even before the hearing, a number of houses in Mark's preferred neighborhood "came on the market unexpectedly." The real estate agents were cited for discriminatory practice and warned that they would be monitored. Mark found a house in the neighborhood he wanted, and now happily takes his tree-lined morning walk to work.

When you have a complaint - whether it concerns housing discrimination, environmental violations, or poor treatment from a community-based organization - it's important to get the details, and to provide evidence when you can. This section explains how to approach the research and information gathering you'll need to do in order to document your complaint properly, and successfully get some action on it.

What is documenting a complaint?

Documenting a complaint means backing it up with as much provable fact or information - documentation - as possible. Mark Johnson, for instance, made a record of all his and Richard's dealings with real estate agents before he went to the Commission Against Discrimination. He knew that his word, or his complaint alone, wasn't necessarily enough to start an investigation.

As we'll discuss below, documenting a complaint can be as simple as taking notes on a conversation, and as complicated as engaging in extensive library research and collecting many pieces of evidence.

Some of the things you may have to document:

  • That the action or condition or policy you're complaining about actually happened or exists
  • That the action or condition or policy in question was intentional, or at least that those responsible for it knew, or should have known, its consequences, or known that it was illegal or unethical
  • That a particular individual or entity was or is responsible for the action or condition or policy in question
  • That you or others actually had particular experiences or conversations
  • That someone was actually harmed or otherwise negatively affected by the action or condition or policy in question
  • The particular physical, social, economic, health, psychological, environmental, or other results of the action or condition or policy in question
  • Your own credentials, or those of any experts you consult or cite

This doesn't mean that you have to have a doctorate in chemistry to document an environmental complaint, for instance, but rather that you've had some relevant experience. That experience could be personal - with the negative health consequences of a particular environmental violation, for instance.

Whatever the case, you can't expect a regulatory agency, municipal officials, a newspaper reporter, the entity you're trying to change, or the public to accept your version of events unless you can back it up. That's what documentation is all about.

Why should you document a complaint?

The most important reason to document a complaint is that already mentioned: regulatory agencies, courts, and ombudspersons need evidence in order to sort out the reality of a situation. (That's why we have trials - so that the judge or jury can figure out who's telling the truth.) If you can prove the substance of your complaint, or at least show that all the evidence points in the direction you're suggesting, you've gone a long way toward getting something done about it.

There are other compelling reasons to provide careful documentation for any complaint, however, such as:

  • It establishes you as a credible witness. In other words, it shows you're telling the truth.
  • It establishes that you were concerned enough to pay attention to and record the details of the situation.
  • It may determine whether or not your complaint is taken seriously.
  • Having the proper documentation may make a difference as to whether or not the complaint can be acted on by a regulator or court. A regulatory body or judge may not have the authority to act without a certain piece or a certain minimum of information. There may be an inspection requirement (in the case of a consumer complaint, for example). It's vital to know what's needed and to make sure you have it.
  • Having the proper documentation may make a difference as to how the complaint is acted upon. Careful documentation, for instance, could determine whether or not the law was violated, to what extent, and if there were extenuating circumstances. All of these could make a big difference in the outcome of your complaint.
  • Proper documentation can protect you against libel or slander charges if you make public accusations. You can't lose a libel or slander suit - and may be able to dismiss one - if you can prove that you're telling the truth.

Libel and slander are the legal terms for damaging someone's reputation by publicly making untrue statements about her. The difference between the two is that libel refers to written statements, and slander to those that are only spoken.

  • In most cases, proof of your complaint automatically gives you the moral advantage.

Who should document complaints?

As should be obvious by now, anyone who wants to file or register a complaint should document it. If you think there's a problem, you need evidence to convince others that that's the case. There are some people, however, whose documentation may be particularly important.

  • Experts in the field. If you're worried about practices or possible leakage at a local nuclear power plant, for instance, having a nuclear engineer help you document the situation may be more effective than doing it alone. He may see things that you wouldn't have thought to look for, or understand why a particular procedure is important to your complaint.
  • People on the inside. Whistleblowers or others who are willing to document practices or actions within the entity you're complaining about may have access to information you'd never have found otherwise.
  • People directly affected by the issue. Those who have been harmed, endangered, or otherwise negatively affected by the subject of the complaint, should be documenting every detail of their experience. Those details may eventually supply the most convincing support for the complaint.
  • Community leaders or other respected individuals. Your documentation can take on added strength and credibility if some of it comes from people in the community whom everyone knows and looks up to.

When should you document complaints?

The great irony about documenting complaints is that - as you often find out later - you should start before you realize you have a complaint. If you take that seriously, you can spend your whole life documenting everything. Since that's probably not how you want to spend your time, you have to make some choices about when you actually try to document what's happening. In fact, there are some specific times when it makes sense to gather evidence.

  • When you're seeking evidence to bring before a regulatory body or court. This is perhaps the situation in which there is the clearest need for documentation. Your documentation in this case needs to be as detailed and accurate as possible, and needs to have been obtained legally. It won't hurt if it's corroborated by several sources as well.
  • When you're looking for facts to back up advocacy for or against legislation or policy. If you're advocating for legislation or policy that would address the subject of your complaint, your chances of success will be far greater if you have documentation of the practice or condition you want to change.

The Voting Rights Act was passed at least partially because Civil Rights Movement activists were able to produce documentation of clear discrimination against potential Black voters in the South. Illiterate White people were regularly allowed to register, while Black people with college degrees were consistently turned away. Faced with the evidence of this practice, the federal government had little choice but to yield to public opinion and act to rectify the situation.

  • When you're trying to convince an organization to change its procedures or policies. If the staff of the welfare office often humiliates welfare recipients, for example, bringing documentation to the administrator in charge may be enough to change organizational policy about the treatment of clients.
  • When you're accusing an organization, business, or government body of wrongdoing, malpractice, or incompetence. Unless the entity has actually broken the law, you'll generally have to provide documentation of a series of events that show a pattern, rather than just a single one.
  • When you suspect a pattern of consumer fraud. When elders in the area receive phone calls offering spectacular deals or investment possibilities too good to be true, they usually are too good to be true. There are numerous stories of phone solicitations that lead to people - older people particularly - losing their life savings, or paying outrageous prices for inferior aluminum siding that they didn't need. Documentation can help to stop this practice, and can also be used to prosecute those responsible.
  • When you suspect that the target of your complaint might accuse you of slander or libel, or might falsely accuse you of some other wrongdoing. As explained above, truth is the ultimate defense against slander or libel. If you carefully document not only the details of your complaint, but the details of theirs against you as well, you'll be able not only to prove your case, but to demonstrate your opponents' true colors.

How do you document complaints?

The first step in documenting a complaint is understanding what kind of documentation you'll need. It will vary, depending upon whom you're registering the complaint with. Once you've settled that question, you then have to make a plan for collecting the documentation, and actually do it.

Determine what kind of documentation you'll need

You may be complaining to an official body - a regulatory agency, a labor union, the personnel department of a company - or you may be taking your complaint public in some way. Whatever the case, you'll have to provide documentation in the form and of the type that's required.

Complaining to an official body

Most regulatory bodies, businesses, institutions, and organizations have some sort of official complaint or grievance procedure. If you're using such a procedure, make sure you know it cold, and follow it carefully. Failing to do so may mean that your complaint won't be heard at all, and to refile it may take months.

  • Submit the complaint to the proper entity, and to the proper department or individual within the entity. It may take some research to find out beforehand who's responsible for the type of complaint you're submitting.
  • Submit the complaint within the time limits imposed by the procedure. There may be time limits involved (the statute of limitations, for instance, or fiscal year considerations), or complaints may have to be submitted within a certain time after the actual violation or incident that sparked the complaint.
  • Submit the complaint in the proper form. You may have to record the complaint on an actual form generated by the oversight body, or the complaint may have to be notarized. There may have to be a certain number of copies; you may need a separate form for each incident you're reporting. You may have to make a personal appearance, in which case you'll need notes so you can document the complaint properly.
  • Find out exactly what documentation is necessary for the official body to act on the complaint, and make sure you have it. Sometimes, you'll need to be able to document specific instances, rather than a pattern of behavior. In other cases, it will be the opposite. You may have to find out informally - through a contact at the entity you're submitting the complaint to - exactly what's required, or what the entity prefers.
  • Deliver the complaint at the required place and time.

In addition to making sure you get everything right, it makes sense to try to identify the actual individual (or panel) that will review the complaint, and try to develop a contact either with that individual or with someone else within the entity who can help you track the progress of the complaint, and answer questions.

Complaining to the entity that's the object of the complaint

Unless you're going through something like an official corporate or organizational grievance procedure - in which case, you should follow the instructions above - you'll need documentation that's both specific enough and powerful enough to convince the entity to change its ways. That may mean proof that it's been doing something illegal, or close to illegal, or simply enough evidence that what it's doing is harmful that it would prefer not to have to face public pressure on the issue. In either case, your documentation will need to include specifics - dates, times, places, people involved, exactly what happened - to make it clear that there's really no room to slide out of the situation.

In order to gain cooperation in this circumstance, your initial approach should probably be low-key and cooperative in itself. Rather than "We've caught you red-handed," a friendlier "We all want to make sure this situation is corrected; let's work together on it" might be more effective. You can always get tough later, if it becomes clear that the entity doesn't want to cooperate.

Using the media to make the complaint public

Just as in the two instances above, the media will want documentation of the specifics of the complaint, but they'll need some other support as well.

When you approach the media, remember the three C's:

  • Coherence. Your story has to be understandable, and able to be told in a not-overly-complicated way. The media will be interested if they feel that your complaint is one that the public can or should understand and be moved by. Your documentation, or at least some of it, has to support your complaint clearly, and show both reporters and the potential audience that your complaint has substance.
  • Consequences. Your complaint will be most compelling to the media if it has some general effects that the audience can see as relevant to themselves. Therefore, your documentation should refer to consequences that touch the general public. A complaint based on threats to public health, economic stability, or political conniving, for instance, is likely to be more newsworthy than one relating to a single person's experience.
  • Confirmation. Most reputable news organizations won't publish anything - especially anything accusatory, controversial, or potentially libelous - without having the facts of the story confirmed by at least one source other than the original. Important stories, or stories that are particularly controversial, usually require corroboration by several sources. You should be prepared to refer reporters to others who can independently confirm the facts that you've given them.

There are three other important points to consider when working with the media. The first is that you should never embroider, exaggerate, or lie for effect to a reporter or columnist. If she can't trust you completely, she won't deal with you, or - worse - will expose you as a liar, and discredit your complaint.

The second is that, while a reporter can be of help to you, there's no guarantee that she will be. Her job is to get the whole story, and she may be convinced by your opponents' arguments. Whenever you work with the media, that's a chance you have to take. That's all the more reason to make sure that your documentation is complete, correct, and convincing.

Finally, find out the appropriate person to bring your story to. In the words of a New York Times reporter, "I would recommend that people read/watch local newspapers and news shows carefully enough to know WHO would be most interested in their stories. Selling an educational outrage story to the reporter who covers retail marketing is a waste of time for all concerned. (I get a lot of this - when flacks call now, I ask, before they can start their pitch, if they know what I cover. If they don't know, and they then ask 'Well, who does cover widgets?' I know that they are mindlessly cold-calling reporters from some list they have been given.)"

Making your complaint public on your own

If you're using a public meeting, a demonstration, a speech, or other public forum, or a self-published flier, article, or website to air your complaint, the documentation you present (not necessarily the same as all the documentation you have) needs to be substantial enough for you to be taken seriously. It also needs to contain enough proof to protect you from slander or libel charges. (As mentioned above, the truth is absolute proof against slander or libel.)

Collect the actual documentation

Try to anticipate the need for documentation

As we discussed earlier, any time you're involved in an advocacy situation that may develop into a complaint, you should be collecting documentation from the very beginning. It's not always possible to anticipate, but if you have any inkling that a complaint is possible, act on it.

The same is true if you think a complaint may be lodged against you. If your advocacy activities involve confrontation or investigation, your opponents may see a complaint as a way to neutralize your message. Even if they're not successful, they could put you and your cause in a bad light. If they are successful, they might be able to silence you completely. If you can document that what you're doing is legal (assuming it is), and that what you're saying is true, they don't have a case.

Do the research to get the background information you need

Know any relevant laws or regulations inside out. Learn as much as you can about the science, sociology, psychology, economics, or politics involved, as well as the history of the issue. If you're accusing an entity of actually or potentially causing harm, you're much more likely to be listened to if you can back up your complaint with research. If you're challenged, you should be able to discuss the issue with confidence, answer questions, and show why you're registering the complaint. The more informed you are, the greater the chances that your complaint will see action.

Get the basic facts

After background, you'll need specifics. These are the nitty-gritty facts of the situation that may, in fact, be extremely important in getting your complaint resolved.

They include:

  • Time and date
  • Place
  • The individual(s) or group(s) involved

This category comprises not only those who are responsible for actions, policies, etc., but those who give you information, those with whom you negotiate, and those with whom you discuss the complaint, among others. There is a reason that the folks who staff the IRS information line, for instance, always identify themselves by name and ID number. Other possible members of this category include owners or operators of businesses or vehicles or equipment involved in the complaint, potential witnesses, and others who may be needed to supply testimony or information.

  • Relevant addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, websites, etc.

It's important to be as accurate as possible with all this information, not only for the purposes of documentation, but also to establish your credibility. If you weren't careful enough to spell people's names correctly or get their addresses right, that could imply that the rest of your facts aren't right, either.

  • The number of incidents, and/or the duration of the problem, if it's ongoing.

Describe, as clearly as possible, exactly what the complaint is about

If the complaint concerns the violation of a law or regulation, for instance, be sure to explain which law or regulation is at issue, and exactly what elements of it were violated. (And be sure you know and understand the details of the law or regulation.) If there's no specific violation, then define and explain your complaint as fully as possible. Your complaint should state both what is occurring that you think is unacceptable, and what you think would be acceptable.

Document exactly what happened

Be specific, including as much detail as possible, and for as many incidents as possible. The step-by-step sequence of events for each incident (as well as the sequence of incidents) may be important.

Document conversations with the target of the complaint, regulators, etc.

It's important to document exchanges with everyone involved - this includes not only the target of the complaint, but also regulators and officials, those affected by the actions or policies you're complaining about, and anyone else related to the issue. If you can, get conversations, or at least the important parts of them, word-for-word. That may mean using an audio recorder (you'll generally need permission to do that), or simply taking good notes. Be careful to get the name of anyone you're talking to, especially if that person is acting in any official capacity - as a technical assistance person for a government agency, for instance - and to record the time and length of the conversation, so it can be confirmed by phone or appointment records.

Document the effects of each incident, or of the overall pattern of events

There are several types of consequences you might be concerned with, and consequences might come from a single policy or action, from repeated actions over time, or from an unrelated series of careless or intentionally harmful policies or actions by the same entity over time.

Some of the types of consequences you might record:

  • Human/psychological consequences. These may result from a policy - anxiety and ultimately hunger and homelessness resulting from a cut in welfare benefits, or from changing eligibility requirements for support programs, for instance. They may also result from careless or incompetent care - physical or mental health problems - or from poor treatment in a program or agency - dropping out, emotional upset to the point of tears, loss of sleep, withdrawal, or acting out.
  • Public health consequences. These may include the outbreak of a specific disease or condition as the result of a single incident or an ongoing problem or series of incidents; a health threat from a single incident or an ongoing series; or long-term consequences of a single incident or an ongoing series.

Some examples of these threats to public health include a massive outbreak of an intestinal disorder caused by the contamination of the Milwaukee water supply by flooding (single incident); sheep kills (and some later human illness) caused by nerve gas escapes from a US government testing facility in Utah in the 1950's and '60's (multiple incidents); and the birth defects and strange diseases caused years later from the dumping of toxic substances in what became the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, NY (long-term consequences from an ongoing series of incidents).

  • Economic consequences. In addition to economic losses caused directly by other consequences (the Love Canal neighborhood was eventually evacuated, and, although residents were compensated, both they and the city lost large amounts of money), a complaint may refer specifically to economic issues. You may be able to document a waste of taxpayers' money (money going to ineffective programs run by politicians' cronies, or to shore up failing businesses owned by the politically well-connected); community economic consequences (loss of employers because of poor schools, pollution, or another target of your complaint); the cheating of shareholders and the government by corporations' and accounting firms' shady practices; or a pure swindle, such as a scheme to defraud elderly citizens of their savings by phone solicitation.
  • Environmental consequences. We've already referred to Love Canal under public health, but it, of course, has environmental consequences as well, as does any dumping of hazardous waste where it will have an impact on soil, air, or water. In addition to its links to health, damage to the environment can have effects on wildlife (think of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989), on landscape (clear-cutting, strip mining), on economics (possible products lost by the clearing of the Amazon rainforest, fisheries depleted by overfishing or pollution), and on the destruction of irreplaceable natural resources (the cutting of old-growth redwoods, the emptying of major aquifers).
  • Political consequences. Mistaken or corrupt decisions on the part of politicians or agencies can lead to any of the consequences listed above, and can also bring about the election, defeat, or downfall of an elected official, the firing of a government employee, or changes for better or worse in government and social policy. They can lead to dishonesty and corruption among officials, the undermining of the democratic process, and citizens' loss of faith in their government. In addition, they can be part of a cycle of bad decisions, made for officials' or their friends' advantage, rather than for the public good. Empires have fallen when such political consequences were allowed to continue unchecked.

Provide or obtain as much actual proof of the substance and details of your complaint as possible

This may take some investigative research.

You may need:

  • Photographs
  • Testimony of whistleblowers or other eyewitnesses
  • Testimony of people affected by the subject of the complaint
  • Legally obtained memos, letters, e-mails, or other documents confirming the substance and details of complaint
  • Logs, or audio- or video records of conversations
  • Public documents, newspaper articles, or other published material confirming the substance or details of the complaint. A newspaper article, for instance, will include the date and location of an incident, the people involved, and at least a summary of what happened.
  • Published scientific, sociological, psychological, or other studies confirming the consequences of the incidents or policies you've documented
  • The testimony of experts - psychologists, environmental scientists, economists, public officials, etc.
  • You may need some evidence of intention among all this. It could make a big difference if an incident or policy was an accident or a mistake, rather than intentionally harmful, or instituted with full knowledge that it could or would cause harm. If a government regulator fails to prosecute a violation because he simply hasn't been able to detect it - whether because of his own incompetence or because of a good cover-up by the violator - he may be fired, but he hasn't broken any laws. If he ignores the violation because the violator has paid him to do so, he's guilty of a criminal act, and can go to jail.

Be prepared to present your documentation, formally or informally

Once you've assembled the documentation you need, you may have to present it to whomever you must convince in order to see your complaint acted upon. Some of the situations you might find yourself in:

  • Informing supervisors, directors, or other officials of the offending entity
  • Formally or informally presenting evidence before an individual regulator or a regulatory body
  • Presenting documentation at a public meeting or demonstration, or in a media interview or program
  • Testifying at a state or federal legislative hearing looking into the activities of a particular entity or of a regulatory agency
  • Giving a pre-trial deposition in a lawsuit
  • Testifying at a court hearing or actual trial

In any of these situations, or others where you're asked to back up your complaint, it's important that your documentation be accurate and well-organized. In a legislative hearing or court-related situation, you may be grilled by lawyers who'll try to rattle you and shake your story or catch you in a contradiction. You can be unshakable if you have your facts straight beforehand.

Some pointers:

  • Memorize the important points, so you don't have to refer to notes or sheaves of documents to answer questions. You should have everything you'll need on the tip of your tongue.
  • Practice telling a coherent story in clear, unpretentious language, just as when dealing with the media
  • When being questioned by lawyers, the most important rule is to stay calm. They may seem angry, but they're not actually angry at you personally; they're just trying to make you anxious enough so you'll make a mistake or come across as a liar or a fool, whether you are or not.
  • When being questioned by lawyers remember that, although you do have to tell the truth, you don't have to - and never should - volunteer any information they don't ask for.

This rule goes for friendly lawyers as well. The lawyer on your side has thought carefully about what he wants you to say in court or at a hearing, and will only ask you for the answers he thinks will be most helpful. If you start answering questions he's not asking, you may provide the other side with information it can use against you.

Another important point to remember is to protect your documentation. Make backups of all computer files and disks, CD's or DVD's. Make copies of all photographs and documents. Store your backups and copies away from your computer and your originals. The danger here is not that they'll be stolen or altered - although, depending upon the nature and the target of your complaint, that may be possible - but rather that they'll be lost or accidentally destroyed.

Unless it's absolutely necessary, don't give out your originals, and provide copies where you have to. Never give an original document, photograph, or other documentation to anyone other than an official of a legislative committee, regulatory body, law enforcement agency, or court. And don't give them originals, either, if they'll take a copy.

Now that you have assembled the documentation for your complaint, you're ready to present it - to the offender, to a regulatory agency, to the courts, to the media, or to the public. You can be confident that you've done all you can to assure that your complaint is attended to and resolved.

In Summary

Filing a complaint will not necessarily bring action unless you can back it up with facts. That means you may have to document not only the facts of the complaint, but the consequences of the action or policy you're complaining about, who's responsible, whether or not the consequence was intentional, and your own standing to complain.

In addition to providing the proof you need to get your complaint resolved, properly documenting a complaint increases your own credibility as well. It can increase the ability of a regulator or court to act, establish intention, protect you from charges of libel or slander, and give you a moral advantage.

Although anyone can - and should - document a complaint, documentation from experts in the field, people affected by the consequences of the action or policy in question, people on the inside of the entity at fault, or respected community figures may be especially powerful. And although complaints should always be documented, it's particularly important to document them when you're preparing for a regulatory or court hearing; when you're advocating for or against a particular piece of legislation or policy; when you're trying to gain organizational change; when you're accusing an entity of wrongdoing; when you suspect consumer (or other) fraud; or when you're in danger of a libel or slander suit.

Your documentation needs to be appropriate to the entity you're complaining to. Regulatory bodies, entities who are targets of the complaint, the press, and the public at large may each respond to different kinds and levels of documentation. You have to know what's necessary and be prepared to provide it.

Actually amassing documentation for a complaint includes a number of elements:

  • Anticipate the need for documentation
  • Do the background research, so that you know your subject well
  • Get the basic facts
  • Describe clearly what the complaint is about
  • Detail exactly what happened in as many instances as possible
  • Document conversations
  • Document the effects of each incident, and/or of the long-term pattern of events
  • Provide actual proof of what you claim - photos, documents, first-hand testimony, etc.
  • Be prepared to present your documentation convincingly

If you can do all this, you have a very good chance of seeing your complaint acted on and resolved.

Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resource

Documenting Age Discrimination – This webpage provides information on how to properly document instances of age discrimination, which can be universally applicable to documenting other forms of discrimination.

Pregnancy Discrimination in the Workplace PDF – This guide provides information for properly documenting instances of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, which can be universally applicable to other forms of discrimination.

What You Need to Know Before Filing a Complaint – This webpage, written by an advocate, provides advice on what an advocate needs to know before filing a complaint.