Monday, September 29, 2014

Courts need to carefully consider whether to dismiss cases for failure to prosecute

Pro se plaintiffs often do not know what they are doing. In this case, the pro se inmate sued jail personnel for deliberate indifferent to his serious medical needs. The case was dismissed for failure to prosecute. The Court of Appeals gives plaintiff a break and reinstates the case.

The case is Baptiste v. Somers, decided on September 24. Plaintiff filed the case in February 2009. The district court threw out some of the claims in August 2010. Plaintiff filed a proposed amended complaint in January 2011. But his proposed amended complaint was not really a complaint but a legal brief that plaintiff intended to rebut the Answer. The Court told plaintiff to file a proper complaint. Plaintiff did not comply with this directive for 23 months, At that point, the Court issued an Order to Show Cause why the case should not be dismissed for failure to prosecute. Plaintiff then found a lawyer who filed two responses: (1) a letter in December 2012 explaining that plaintiff had just recently hired a lawyer and that plaintiff had been ill and unable to pursue his claims, (2) and a response in February 2013 stating the basis for plaintiff's claims and further claiming that, contrary to the district court's directive, discovery could not be completed in 60 days.

The district court dismissed despite these two submissions, stating that plaintiff did not offer a plan to complete proceedings within 60 days. The Court also said that plaintiff did not explain the nearly two-year delay in prosecuting the case. The Court did not make reference to the new lawyer's December 2012 letter explaining why the case lay dormant for so long.

The correct way to determine if plaintiff failed to prosecute the case is by considering the duration of the delay, whether plaintiff knew his failure to proceed would result in dismissal, whether defendants would be prejudiced by further delay, the court's interest in managing its docket, the plaintiff's interest in pursuing the case and whether a less-adequate sanction is appropriate. The judge in this case did not appear to consider those factors. And the plaintiff did provide a good reason for the delay: he was ill and did not have a lawyer. Once the Court threatened to dismiss the case, plaintiff hired a lawyer who mad ethe appropriate filings. In all, the district court blew it. The case is revived.  

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