Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Cutting pro se discrimination plaintiffs a break

In this case, the Court of Appeals cuts the pro se discrimination litigants a break, holding they may proceed with their cases even if they do not comply with the technical requirements in filing the lawsuit.

The case is McLeod v. Jewish Guild for the Blind, decided on July 19. Using a form complaint provided by the federal court's pro se office, plaintiff checked off some but not all of the boxes to signify what claims she wanted to pursue. She checked off the Title VII box but not the ones for the New York City and New York State Human Rights Laws. The district court therefore disallowed her from proceeding with any claim other than Title VII. The Court of Appeals (Hall, Lynch and Droney) reverses.

The Second Circuit notes that it has traditionally cut pro se litigants a break when it comes to technical pleading deficiencies. Pro se litigants do not know the complexities associated with filing a lawsuit. We do not want form over substance for non-lawyers. The Court also notes that it has held in the past that even counseled litigants do not have to cite the correct law in pleading their cases and that it's the factual allegations that matter. The cite for that is Albert v. Caravello, 851 F.2d 561, 571 n.3 (2d Cir. 1988).

On these bases, the Court of Appeals reinstates plaintiff's City and State law claims. You may ask, what's the point? The point is that the City and State laws offer certain protections that Title VII does not, even if the plaintiff is claiming sex discrimination (as in this case) under all statutes. The City law is construed more liberally than Title VII, particularly with respect to hostile work environment claims. The State law provides a longer statute of limitations and allows you to sue individual defendants, unlike Title VII. If you practice in these areas, you know about these distinctions. But, the Court of Appeals says, pro se litigants are probably unaware of these distinctions, and they may inadvertently forfeit those rights in filling out the complaint forms provided by the courts.

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