Thursday, June 9, 2011

Pro se plaintiff wins battle of the wills in Second Circuit

In this case, the Second Circuit sides with a pro se litigant who was caught up in a battle of wills with a federal judge in Connecticut, who dismissed his racial discrimination case because plaintiff could not find a lawyer before time ran out.

The case is Leftridge v Connecticut State Trooper, decided on May 12. Leftridge sued the police, claiming that he was pulled over on the highway because of his race. The district court denied his motion for appointment of counsel, since you have not right to counsel in civil cases, only criminal cases. Then, plaintiff kept renewing his motion for the appointment of counsel, but the judge kept denying that motion, even after plaintiff's doctor wrote a letter to the court stating that the stress of litigation was affecting plaintiff's mental health and that he should not be representing himself. Again, the trial court has no duty to follow the doctor's wishes.

But then the district court went too far. After the doctor wrote his letter, the judge entered an order stating that the case would be dismissed if he did not hire counsel by June 29, 2009, and that "given the present circumstances, this case should be administratively closed without prejudice to reopening by an attorney for the plaintiff." When plaintiff on June 22, 2009 asked for more time to hire a lawyer because he was trying to raise money for attorneys' fees, the court denied that application. The court a few days later denied plaintiff's motion to reopen the case. June 29, 2009 came and went, and that was the end of the case.

The Court of Appeals (Kearse, Calabresi and Wesley) revives the case. Leftridge wins the appeal pro se. It was legal for the trial court to deny plaintiff's request for the appointment of counsel, but there was no legal basis for the court threaten to dismiss the case if plaintiff could not find a lawyer. The Court concludes, "If an adult individual wishes to conduct his case pro se, an order requiring him instead to retain counsel to represent him violates § 1654 [the statute that allows individuals to represent themselves pro se]. An order dismissing the action of such a pro se plaintiff for failure to retain counsel is a legal error and cannot be located within the range of permissible decisions. Accordingly, in the present case, the district court's July 2 Order refusing to reopen the case solely because Leftridge had not obtained counsel, thereby precluding him from pursuing his case pro se, constituted an abuse of discretion." Wrapping things up, the Second Circuit provides guidance to district courts in case this ever happens again:

Clearly the court did not abuse its discretion by giving Leftridge time to retain counsel, although it would have been preferable for the court to have said that the action was stayed, rather than closed; and the court should have specified that if Leftridge did not retain counsel (by such deadline as the court imposed) he nonetheless had the option of proceeding pro se. And once Leftridge was unable to retain counsel before the June 29 deadline and asked that the case be reopened in order to allow him to proceed pro se, he should have been allowed to proceed pro se. The inability of an individual litigant to obtain counsel is not a basis for denying him his statutory right to pursue his case pro se.

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