Here's the scenario. You have submitted your complaint to the attorney general's office, and now you are just waiting to receive a response. So, naturally, you are wondering how long it will take the attorney general's office to respond to your complaint.
Of course, every attorney general's office might have a slightly different response time, to account for relatively higher and lower backlogs, higher and lower headcount of employees to handle submitted complaints, and different "response time targets" from office to office. But what I can tell after seeing thousands of attorney general complaints go through the process is that there are typical patterns and proportions that seem to exist in just about every attorney general's office.
Is the attorney general's office swamped with other complaints to handle?
The time it takes the attorney general's office to respond to your complaint submission has a lot to do with how backlogged the attorney general's office is at the time the complaint is submitted.
There is usually no way for you to know any details about how backlogged the attorney general's office might have been at the time you submitted your complaint absent the attorney general's office letting you know (which is actually somewhat common to see if/when such a backlog is getting in the way of what the attorney general's office shoots for as its "normal response time").
For example, here is a snippet from an email message the Florida attorney general's office sometimes sends by automated reply when such a backlog is putting pressure on the office's employees to hit the targeted "normal response time" after a complaint is submitted:
Please be aware that, due to staffing shortages and a high volume of complaints, our Case Managers are currently working through a dense backlog of complaints. This has resulted in longer than average wait times for the handling of cases. Return phone calls and emails from our Case Managers may also be delayed, but we will be responsive as quickly as we can.
We appreciate your patience as we are working diligently to address each complaint in the order received.
Having seen so many of these complaints go through the process, I actually appreciate this kind of "heads up," because it notifies the complainant that he/she should not expect the attorney general's office to be able to respond within whatever the "normal" amount of time would otherwise be. It's much better to be made of aware of the need to adjust expectations than it would be for those expectations to simply be missed without any "heads up."
💡Pro tip: if you receive such a "heads up" from the attorney general's office, then you might consider replying to ask exactly how many complaint were received ahead of yours, since, as in our example above, the attorney general's office might work on complaints "in the order received." You just ask: how many complaints that are still being worked on were submitted prior to my complaint being submitted?
Is the attorney general's office fully staffed?
This variable is really just the other side of the backlog variable we just discussed. When complaint volume is lower, a given headcount of employees in the attorney general's office may be sufficient. But when the complaint volume increases beyond a certain volume, that same number of employees may be inadequate.
What makes this particularly challenging for a public agency like the attorney general's office is that the process of establishing the office's annual budget--which typically would require submitting a proposed budget to some other entity for approval--tends to not be nimble enough to respond quickly (or even at all, in many cases) to sudden upticks in complaint volume. Rather, whatever the annual budget is at the beginning of the year, the attorney general's office may be forced to stay within that budget until the following year, come what may, and regardless of how complaint volume ebbs and flows throughout the course of that budgeted year.
One key takeaway, then, is that if you submit a complaint to the attorney general's office and are then met with a response similar to the example given above, which cites staffing shortages as the reason for longer wait times, you should not expect that backlog to soon be remedied with the sudden addition of additional headcount in the attorney general's office. Again, while waiting longer may not be ideal for you, it's better to be made aware of the expected wait times than to only begin to realize them after you've waited for a longer than expected without any "heads up" or explanation.
When was your complaint submitted to the attorney general's office?
When you are trying to figure out when you might expect a response from the attorney general's office, a key fact to keep in mind is the date on which you submitted the complaint.
Fortunately, most (if not all) attorney general offices will send you some sort of written confirmation that your complaint has been received by the office. So, this tends to eliminate any mystery as to when the attorney general's office actually received your complaint, following your submission of it.
For example, in Alabama, the attorney general's office tends to send an automated email message confirming receipt of your complaint, and the content of that email message is simply whatever content you included with your complaint (you can see partial example of that email message above). Although not elaborate, this kind of confirmation email is helpful when you are trying to keep track of process steps and timeline.
Is investigation of your complaint in the public interest?
When you submit a complaint to the attorney general's office, you need to keep this in mind: the attorney general's office is primarily interested in protecting the public interest, rather than intervening to protect any one individual (e.g. you, as an individual complainant).
For this reason, it's smart to craft your complaint in the first place to convey to the attorney general's office why, in your opinion, the subject of your complaint should be investigated to protect the public interest. In other words, you want one of the themes of your complaint to be, here's what happened to me, which is indicative, I think, of what is happening to other citizens like me. That's the kind of matter the attorney general's office is going to be more interested in investigating.
(Related: here's our 4-step guide to crafting an effective attorney general complaint.)
Although not always, you can sometimes see reminders of this priority in the communications you receive from the attorney general's office. For example, here is an excerpt from a response letter sent to a complainant in California (when Kamala Harris was still attorney general there):
We appreciate your contacting the Attorney General's Office about this matter. We will retain your complaint in our files and may contact you again should it appear that further investigation would be in the public interest.
(I added the emboldened text in the quote above for emphasis.)
As another example, here is an excerpt from a response letter sent to a complainant in Nevada:
[T]his office will keep your complaint on file and, if we receive additional complaints against the same company or individual(s) indicating a pattern of misrepresentations, we may open a case file including your complaint.
This relates to the timeline for handling your complaint in that you might reasonable expect that complaints pertaining to matters of public interest would receive accelerated treatment, whereas those not deemed to meet that standard might have to wait in the longer, "general" complaint line.
What's the "average" response time?
Now that you are aware of some of the individual factors that determine the attorney general's office's response time to a given complaint, you might still want to know whether there are typical "averages" that take into account already all of the layers we've listed here individually. In a sense, there are. So, here are some indicators of what the attorney general's office's response time might be in your state.
Because not every part of the attorney general's office's complaint-handling process is subject to the effects of "staffing shortages," certain steps of the complaint-handling process tend to be more uniform. For example, in Pennsylvania, an early step in the typical complaint-handling process is to forward your complaint to the business about which you have complained. In doing so, the attorney general's office usually requests that the business respond to the attorney general's office within 21 days:
Dear Mr. Complainant:
Your complaint has been received by the Bureau of Consumer Protection. Please refer to your File Number 838-2373-8383 when corresponding with this office to help us keep accurate and up-to-date records.
A copy of your complaint as presented to the Bureau has been sent to the business with a request for the business to provide a written response to the Bureau within 21 days. We will keep you apprised of significant developments as your case progresses. You will be notified by mail when we receive information regarding your case.
(Again, I added the emboldened text in the quote above for emphasis.)
What this letter would mean for you, if this were your complaint, is that you should at least expect that the step of the business providing a written response to the attorney general's office should take no longer than 21 days, absent some subsequent modification being made to this time allotment by the attorney general's office.
While that would not give you clarity as to the entire timeline for your complaint being handled, it would at least give you clarity as to some portion of the process.
Based on typical process steps like the one highlighted above, and just the overall timeline I tend to see for an attorney general's office providing an initial response to a complainant following receipt of the submitted complaint, I would estimate the average response time to initially be 30 days or less.
So, if you cite to the written confirmation you received when the attorney general's office received your complaint, you should be able to calculate a reasonable estimate by counting out 30 days from the date of that written confirmation.