What does pro se mean?
Pro se is a Latin term that means “in one’s own behalf,” and when used in the legal sense, it refers to when a party to litigation represents him or herself without the assistance of an attorney.
Am I allowed to represent myself in federal court?
Yes. For civil litigation, the right to represent yourself pro se in federal court is addressed at 28 U.S.C. § 1654, which provides: “In all courts of the United States the parties may plead and conduct their own cases personally or by counsel as, by the rules of such courts, respectively, are permitted to manage and conduct causes therein.” While there are some limitations on representing yourself, anyone can appear pro se in a civil matter in federal courts. Most states follow the same or similar rules for representing yourself in civil matter.
Will the Court provide me legal help or advice if I choose to represent myself?
No. The law prohibits Court employees, including judges and their staff, from giving legal advice or performing legal services to aid a pro se litigation. Specifically, the law precludes Court employees from helping pro se parties so that the Court is viewed as being neutral, which is key maintaining the integrity of the Court system. As an exception, however, the clerk of court can provide procedural advise regarding how to file documents or access the docket.
Will the EEOC help me if I choose to represent myself?
Not much, if any. Our employment discrimination attorneys have frequently blogged about all the problems that may happen should you try to go it alone through the charging process in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). (Best Law Read: Don’t File With The EEOC On Your Own; It’s Bad To File With The EEOC Without A Lawyer; The EEOC Will Not Help You Properly Fill Out The Charging Form; Read This Before Filing An EEOC Charge).
Why do most people represent themselves in Court?
The single biggest reason that parties opt to represent themselves is because of the potentially high cost of litigation. However, the best way to avoid high costs of litigation in employment discrimination, wrongful termination, sexual harassment, equal pay, or any other type of employment litigation is to engage counsel on a contingency fee basis, which means that you only get charged a fee based on a portion of any recovery. If there is no recovery, you don’t pay a fee. (Best Law Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?).
Will the judge be understanding if I make mistakes while representing myself?
Maybe. Maybe not. Different judges act, well, differently. But, typically, courts are not sympathetic nor understanding to those who make mistakes when practicing law without a license before them. When you take your case to court, you need skilled lawyers to navigate what is a web of complicated rules and procedures. You also need to be well-advised on what to say and when to say it in order to best make your case. Failure to proceed with caution can result in your case being dismissed before it even sees a jury. (Best Law Read: Why Having Skilled Employment Attorneys Is Critical).
For an example of this happening, let’s take a look at the case of Skinner v. Newmont USA Ltd., 2022 WL 10382931 (9th Cir. 2022).
Kirk Skinner was a man who may have had similar issues to you. In his case, he had a disability; he needed assistance with lifting items that weigh more than 50 pounds. He tried to get his boss to agree to reasonable accommodation, but the boss refused. The boss then waited a bit before terminating Skinner, presumably trying to hide their discriminative motive behind the passage of time.
In response, Skinner made a mistake: he didn’t call the right attorney. The right attorney would have told him that he had a disability discrimination claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) the moment his boss refused a reasonable accommodation. (Best Law Read: What Should Employees Know About Reasonable Accommodations?). Instead, Skinner tried to handle the problem himself. He submitted a form saying that he has “total disability” to Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). “Total disability” means that he would be physically unable to do any job even with reasonable accommodation. Skinner later explained that he misunderstood this term as meaning he was unable to do his old job without reasonable accommodation; a reasonable misunderstanding for someone who is not familiar with the law. Applying for “total disability” would go on to be toxic to his case.
When he brought his disability discrimination case before the court, both the trial court and the Court of Appeals threw his case out before it had a chance to reach the jury. Why? They gave two reasons, both of which may have been solved had he brought a better attorney. The first was that supposedly too much time had passed between the request for disability accommodation and Skinner’s termination. Both courts thought that the length of time would speak against there being a connection between the disability and the termination. However, as one of the judges said in a dissent, the case law implies that the time period in question was still short enough for the connection to have been drawn. That judge also correctly said that the court was obligated to interpret the law most favorably towards Skinner under the circumstances. It is possible that, had this case been better argued, the court might have found in Skinner’s favor on that issue.
The second reason why the courts found against Skinner was that pesky application he made to SSDI saying that he was totally disabled. The Court heard Skinner’s explanation and cast it aside, only focusing on what the forms stated. They used what Skinner had written against him, using it to show the Skinner was unable to do the job and thus had no claim. Had Skinner been properly advised by the right lawyer, he would have never of submitted the document that doomed his case.
Please learn from Skinner’s example. You do not have to fight your legal battles alone. You do not have to settle for inferior lawyers. You deserve an attorney who can fight on your behalf and protect you from legal traps and pitfalls. Call the right attorney. You will thank yourself for it.
How do I find the best employee’s rights attorney to sue my employer?
If you reside or worked in Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina, our employment discrimination and wrongful termination attorneys are ready to help you and give you a free and confidential consultation. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm and its experienced attorneys are dedicated to protecting employees’ rights and solving employment disputes.
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