You are here: Pro Se Home > Questions and Answers

Questions and Answers



What does it mean to appear pro se?

"Pro se" is Latin for "in one's own behalf." Individuals representing themselves in court without the assistance of an attorney are known as pro se litigants, and are said to be "proceeding pro se." Although the majority of individuals appearing before this court are represented by attorneys, a small percentage appears pro se.


Why can't the Clerks Office give legal advice?

Court employees cannot give legal advice because they must remain neutral to protect the integrity and independence of our federal courts. Court employees can answer general questions about court procedures, and you may contact the Clerk's Office for such assistance.


Will the Court appoint a lawyer to represent me?

Unlike criminal cases where there is a right to counsel, a person filing a civil case has no legal right to have the Court appoint a lawyer to assist him or her. For more information on how to obtain an attorney, visit the Legal Resources page on the Court's website.

You may file a motion with the Court for appointment of counsel but such requests are rarely granted. To file this motion, you may use the Court's general motion form and title your motion "Motion for Appointment of Counsel."


My EEOC form indicates the Court will provide assistance with obtaining a lawyer. Will the Judge appoint me a lawyer?

The EEOC instructions on a right to sue letter explain that the Court may, in limited circumstances, appoint counsel. However, unlike criminal cases where there is a right to counsel, a person filing a civil case has no legal right to have the Court appoint a lawyer to assist him or her. You may file a motion with the Court for appointment of counsel but such requests are rarely granted. To file this motion, you may use the Court's general motion form and title your motion "Motion for Appointment of Counsel."


Is there a time limit for filing my complaint (statute of limitations)?

There is a time limit, called a statute of limitations, which is a deadline to bring a claim in a civil lawsuit. Each alleged violation of a law has its own statute of limitations. In other words, if you allege more than one violation of law, each claim has its own statute of limitations, which may be different from each other. The Clerk's Office cannot tell you the deadline for filing claims in your lawsuit because this information is legal advice. You must do legal research to find the statute of limitations for each claim stated in the complaint. For information on where to do legal research, see the Legal Resources page on this Court's website.


Does the court require a specific format for documents that are filed?

Documents that are filed in this Court must comply with the specific formatting requirements of Local Rule 5.2. The rule states that all documents filed with the Court must be double spaced, except for quoted material and footnotes, and typewritten or printed or prepared by a clearly legible process. A document can be handwritten, preferably in pen, as long as it is legible. All documents filed after the complaint must contain the case number and the initials of the District Judge and Magistrate Judge assigned to the case, which must be placed on the front page of the document above the title. These requirements do not apply to exhibits.


What kinds of cases belong in federal court (subject matter jurisdiction)?

Federal court is a court of limited jurisdiction. Many types of cases may be filed in state court, but only two types of cases may be heard in federal court: (1) cases involving questions of federal law; or (2) cases where all the plaintiffs are residents of a state different from each of the defendants, and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.

For more information on the jurisdiction of the federal courts and the difference between federal and state courts, click on the links.


Why can't the Clerk's Office tell me if my case belongs in federal court (subject matter jurisdiction)?

You must do your own legal research to determine whether or not to bring your case in federal court. Once the case is filed in federal court, only a judge can make the final determination of whether the Court has jurisdiction over the case. Subject matter jurisdiction refers to the authority of the Court to hear a particular case and is defined by statute.


How do I bring criminal charges against someone?

Only the United States Attorney's Office may file criminal charges in this Court. If you believe you have been the victim of a crime or if you have knowledge that a crime has been committed, you should contact your local police or the appropriate federal law enforcement agency. Examples of federal law enforcement agencies are: Federal Bureau of Investigations (bank robbery, kidnapping); Drug Enforcement Administration (drug crimes); Secret Service (credit card fraud); and Postal Inspector (mail fraud).


How do I file a civil complaint?

All complaints must be filed with the Clerk's Office. For assistance in completing a complaint, you may use one of the Court's complaint forms. Along with the signed complaint, you must file a civil cover sheet, summons and either pay the $400.00 filing fee or file an Application to Proceed in District Court Without Prepaying Fees or Costs (IFP application).


I can't afford the filing fee. What is IFP and what is the standard used by the Court to determine if an applicant qualifies for IFP?

In forma pauperis (IFP) is Latin for "in the form of a pauper." IFP status is generally granted to those who the Court determines do not have the resources to pay the filing fee.

To apply for IFP status, you must use the Court's Application to Proceed in District Court Without Prepaying Fees or Costs. A magistrate judge will review your request and you will be notified of the judge's decision. If the judge grants your request, you can proceed In Forma Pauperis or IFP. Permission to proceed IFP only entitles a plaintiff to file an action without paying the $400.00 filing fee and without paying the costs to serve the complaint upon the defendant(s). Proceeding IFP does not waive all costs you may incur.


How long does it take for a case to get a docket number?

When you file your complaint and other necessary documents to open a civil case, the case will be given a docket number and assigned to a judge immediately.


How many copies of the complaint do I need?

To file a complaint with the Clerk's Office, you will need only one original complaint, one civil cover sheet, one summons, and either an IFP application or payment of the $400.00 filing fee. If you do pay the filing fee, you will need to keep extra copies of the summons and complaint to serve on each defendant.

You should also keep a copy of each document you file with the Court for your own records. Keeping copies of what you file may prevent you from having to pay the Clerk's Office for copies in the future. It costs $.50 per page for each copy the Clerk's Office makes for you.


Can I get back any documents I file with the Clerk's Office?

All documents that are filed with the Clerk's Office become part of the Court record and cannot be returned. The only way that the Clerk's Office may return any document that has been filed is by a court order. If you attach any exhibits to your complaint or other court documents, you should file a copy of the exhibit and keep the original for your records.


Who can serve my summons and complaint?

You must consult Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4 to determine how to serve each defendant. Rule 4 outlines different rules for serving certain types of defendants, such as, business entities, government officials and minors. Generally, anyone over the age of 18 years, who is not a party to the lawsuit, can serve the summons and complaint. For more information on service of process, review this Court's Pro Se Civil guidebook or Service of Process Information Sheet.

If your application to waive the filing fee (IFP application) was granted and you have in forma pauperis status, the United States Marshals Service will serve your summons and complaint on each defendant for you free of charge.


What is a magistrate judge and why has my case been referred to a magistrate judge?

All civil cases are assigned to one United States District Judge and one United States Magistrate Judge, unless the parties consent to have a magistrate judge handle the case. In this district, magistrate judges hold scheduling conferences, issue pretrial scheduling orders, and hear and determine most pretrial matters. The district judge may refer motions to dismiss or summary judgment motions to the magistrate judge who will issue a Report and Recommendation. A party may file objections to the Report and Recommendation. The district judge will issue a decision after reviewing the Report and Recommendation and any objections filed. See Local Rules 72.1 and 72.2 for more information.


Can I speak to the judge about my case?

Unless you are appearing in Court before the judge, all communication with the judge must be in writing. Written communication submitted to the judge must be filed with the Clerk's Office.


How long will it take to go to trial?

In most cases, the Magistrate Judge will issue a scheduling order outlining the trial date and various other deadlines. The length of time it takes for each case to prepare for trial varies and will depend on a number of factors.