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Representing Yourself (Pro Se) FAQ

What does “pro se” mean?

“Pro Se” is a Latin term meaning “for oneself.” If you are representing yourself without an attorney, you are known as a PRO SE LITIGANT.

** A WORD OF ADVICE: Self-representation carries certain responsibilities and risks that pro se litigants should be aware of before they proceed. The court encourages all individuals who are considering pro se or self-representation to carefully review the risks associated with self-representation and to educate themselves regarding potential consequences.

Is there an alternative to appearing pro se (representing yourself) that is affordable?

Most people who file and pursue litigation in the federal court employ a licensed attorney, who practices law, has appeared in court, and is familiar with the rules of procedure that govern court processes. Some attorneys may be willing to accept your case on a contingency basis where the attorney would receive a fee based upon a percentage of your recovery if you win your case, and the attorney would get nothing if you do not prevail. There are provisions under some laws that require the other side to pay your attorneys fees should you win your case.
Most attorneys are careful when screening cases before agreeing to accept them in order to make sure potential clients have a viable chance for winning a case which would allow them to collect a fee. If an attorney rejects your case, reasons for such an action could be based on considerations such as:
  • There may be no merit to your case;
  • You may not be able to prove anyone liable for wrong done to you;
  • The wrong done to you may not be severe enough to warrant monetary damages;
  • You have no witnesses; or
  • Your witnesses are not credible.
If you are unable to find an attorney to represent you, you have the right to pursue your claim(s) in the court by appearing without representation or pro se, a Latin phrase meaning “for oneself.” Bear in mind that as a pro se litigant, you are representing only yourself and presenting only your claims and defenses. Under the law, you cannot speak for another person, a company, or other entity such as a club or association that includes other individuals. When you appear pro se, you must follow the same rules and procedures that licensed attorneys practicing in this court must follow. Generally, judges hold pro se litigants to the same standards of professional responsibility as trained attorneys.

Is there a referral service for local attorneys?

The Alabama State Bar offers an attorney referral service. They can be contacted at 1-800-392-5660. You can visit their online referral page at http://www.alabar.org/lrs/

You may qualify for free legal help. Call Legal Services Alabama on 1-866-456-4995 or visit: http://www.alabamalegalhelp.org/AL/index.cfm.

If you decide to represent yourself, what are some basic things to remember?

It is important that you fully understand your obligation to prosecute your case once it is filed:
  • You are required to diligently prosecute your lawsuit. Unless and until you hire an attorney to represent you, it is your responsibility to do everything necessary to prepare your case for trial. This includes, but is not limited to, responding to discovery requests and motions. It is also your responsibility to try your case in court.
  • Do not expect any correspondence or orders from the court instructing you regarding procedures for prosecuting your lawsuit. If you fail to follow established procedures (Rules), your case will be subject to dismissal for failure to prosecute.
  • You are required to provide copies of all pleadings and motions that you file with the court to the attorney representing the defendant or, if the defendant has no attorney, to the defendant. Likewise, counsel for the defendant is required to serve you with copies of all pleadings and motions filed on behalf of the defendant.
  • Sometimes, plaintiffs will attach a certificate of service indicating that the Clerk of Court has been served with copies of pleadings or motions. This is not appropriate, and the certificate will be disregarded because it does not satisfy service requirements. It is your responsibility to serve the defendant(s), not the Clerk’s Office.
  • You must keep the court and defendant(s) advised of any change in your address or telephone number. The failure to do so immediately may result in the imposition of sanctions, which may include the dismissal of your case.

Is there a simple, step-by-step Guide that can help you get started in filing a case?

Yes, we have a three-step Simple Guide to Filing a Civil Action. This may answer many of your initial questions. Click here.

If you plan to represent yourself, where can you go to review applicable federal laws and procedures and this court’s local rules of procedure?

As a pro se litigant, you must be familiar with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence. These rules set forth the general procedural requirements for litigating cases in all federal courts. Federal laws can be found in the United States Code, abbreviated as U.S.C. The contents of each of these publications can be found on the Internet at the following website addresses:
As a pro se litigant, you must also be familiar with our District Court’s local rules which apply specifically to court proceedings in our court. You can obtain a copy of the Local Rules at the District Court Clerk’s Office free of charge, or you can access this publication on our court’s Internet website at this link (PDF | HTML).

A lot of the terminology used by the court and attorneys is hard to understand. Is there a glossary?

SOME BASIC DEFINITIONS: Plaintiffs and defendants in court cases generally are referred to as the “parties” or “litigants.” The plaintiff asserts a claim or right protected by law against the defendant; the defendant generally denies the claim or right, and the court determines whether the asserted claims or rights have merit. The great majority of litigants who appear in this court are represented by an attorney who has been trained in the law and is familiar with the applicable court rules and procedures. Parties or litigants who are not represented by licensed attorneys and who elect to represent themselves generally are referred to as pro se parties or pro se litigants. Likewise, plaintiffs or defendants who represent themselves generally are referred to as pro se plaintiffs or pro se defendants.

For more terms, click here.

Is this the appropriate court to hear your dispute? What constitutes Federal Jurisdiction?

Federal courts can only hear certain types of cases. Like all other federal trial courts, this court is only authorized to hear disputes that fall into the following four categories:
  1. Those that deal with a question involving the United States Constitution;
  2. Those that involve questions of federal law, as opposed to state law;
  3. Those that involve the United States of America as a party, whether plaintiff or defendant; or,
  4. Those that involve a dispute among residents of different states with an amount in controversy more than $75,000.

Are there costs involved in filing a new case or for other services?

Yes. There is a filing fee for new cases, a fee to get copies, etc. To see the current fees and other court costs, click here.

Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure prohibits filing lawsuits that are clearly frivolous or filed merely to harass an individual. If after reviewing your complaint, the court determines that you have filed a lawsuit for an improper or clearly unnecessary purpose, it may impose sanctions against you, including ordering you to pay a fine to the court or pay the legal fees of the person or persons against whom you filed the lawsuit. In certain types of cases, such as employment discrimination cases, if you lose, you may be required to pay the legal fees of the winning party. In all cases, if you lose, you may be required to pay some of the costs the winning party incurred in the course of the lawsuit.

Does the court accept personal checks?

The court does not accept personal checks. The Clerk’s office accepts money orders, cashiers’ checks, and cash. Please note that the Clerk’s office does NOT make or keep change for case payments. Please do not send cash through the mail.

If you cannot afford the costs for filing a new case, how do you proceed?

IF YOU CANNOT AFFORD TO PAY THE FILING FEE you may be allowed to have the filing fee waived if you fill out an APPLICATION FOR LEAVE TO PROCEED IN FORMA PAUPERIS (IFP) - and send it to the Court with the COMPLAINT, service copies for each defendant and, if appropriate, completed Summons forms. The Financial Affidavit is required so that the selected Judge can make a determination of your inability to pay the filing fee.

Bear in mind that you can apply for a waiver of the fee only after your action is filed. The Clerk’s Office will accept your case without payment if, at the time you file it, you also apply for a waiver of the fee. If the judge subsequently denies your waiver application, you will be required to pay the fee; if you do not pay it within a specified time period, your case will be dismissed.

If the APPLICATION FOR LEAVE TO PROCEED IN FORMA PAUPERIS (IFP) is approved, what costs or fees are waived?

The application IFP only applies to the filing fee. Generally, all other costs, for example, copy fees if you need a copy of something, attorney fees, transcript fees, etc., will still be your responsibility.

How do you establish your case in our court?

The plaintiff or person bringing the lawsuit to court files a complaint. The complaint outlines a problem or reason for the lawsuit, also known as a cause of action. When preparing your complaint, you should use 8½" x 11" (letter size) paper. The contents must include the following:
  • A short and plain statement of the grounds upon which the court’s jurisdiction depends.
  • A short and plain statement of the claim showing that you are entitled to relief, and a demand for judgment for the relief to which you deem yourself entitled.
  • The complaint (and any other type of pleadings that are filed such as motions, etc.) shall contain a caption setting forth the name of the court, the title of the action, the case number (if already assigned), and a designation such as “Complaint,” etc.
  • You must clearly identify all defendants by name and address, and it is your responsibility to determine the identity of any and all defendants you wish to sue. Check to see that you have included all relevant names, addresses, and dates in your complaint. You may attach as an exhibit any written instrument you have referred to in your complaint which you would like to make a part of the complaint. You must sign the complaint and state your address and phone number. If there is more than one plaintiff, each must sign the complaint as well as all future pleadings. Remember, if you are proceeding pro se, you can only represent yourself; you may not represent another person or party.

Can a complaint or any other pleading to the judge be in the form of a letter?

No. The Judges of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama adopted the following policy, effective March 21, 1997: Pleadings, briefs and motions will no longer be accepted in letter form. Therefore, for example, a letter to a Judge or to the Clerk of Court requesting the continuance of a matter will not be accepted. Instead, a motion, with the style of the case and containing a certificate of service, must be filed. Similarly, briefs in letter form will not be accepted. Instead, briefs must bear the style of the case and contain a certificate of service.

Are forms and sample formats available for filing Pro Se?

The Court has several simple forms and sample formats that Pro Se litigants may use. Click here.

When must a new case be served on the defendant(s)?

Plaintiffs have 120 days from the date their Complaint is filed.

What needs to be provided if service of the initial complaint will be by certified mail?

If you want the Clerk’s Office to make service for you by certified mail, please provide the following for each defendant:
  • Green return receipt cards addressed to the U.S.D.C. Clerk of Court, PO BOX 711, Montgomery, AL 36101. Provide green card and receipt DETACHED from the envelope.
  • An Envelope with Postage affixed in advance for the amount needed to mail the complaint and summonses. (The Post Office is able to provide you with an exact amount of postage necessary for certified mail. Do not give us money - stick the stamps or postage tape to the envelope) Pre-Address the envelope(s) to your defendant(s) and use our address as the return address. Note: The mailing address of your defendant on the summonses and on the service materials should be identical.
  • A copy of the Complaint and two (2) Summonses for service for each defendant. For example, if you are suing two people, in addition to the original complaint for our office, you need to provide two extra copies of the complaint and two summonses for each defendant for a total of four summonses.

What happens once the defendant(s) has been served?

Once the defendant has been served with a copy of the complaint, the defendant must file with the court an answer or some response within a specified number of days. Under the rules governing service of process, each defendant is required to provide a copy of his response to the plaintiff.

What are motions?

Either party, the plaintiff or the defendant, may request that the court take specific action related to the case. To do so, the party prepares a formal request or what is referred to as a motion. The party then signs the motion, submits it, with a certificate of service and files it with the Clerk of Court and sends a copy to the opposing party. The opposing party may then file with the Clerk of Court an objection or responsive pleading to the motion. This objection sets forth the reasons why the court should deny rather than grant the motion.

The district or magistrate judge normally rules on motions by issuing a written order related to the relief sought in the motion. That order may grant the motion, deny the motion or partially grant or deny. The court generally does not schedule hearings in order for the parties to argue the motion or objections.

Where a case has been referred to a magistrate judge and one of the parties files a dispositive (bringing about a final determination) motion, the magistrate judge is authorized to prepare a written Report and Recommendation, namely, a recommendation that the motion be either granted or denied and stating the reason(s) why. This Report and Recommendation is forwarded to the district judge assigned to the case and copies are sent to the parties. As a party, you have a certain number of days within which to file objections to the Report and Recommendation. All objections that are received within the specified time are forwarded to the district judge. The district judge reviews the Report and Recommendation and any objections that have been filed and will subsequently issue an order that adopts, rejects, or adopts in part and rejects in part the magistrate judge’s Report and Recommendation. A judgment will also be entered by the district judge in the case. Such judgment is final and can be appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit located in Atlanta, Georgia.

What must a certificate of service show?

The certificate of service must show the name and address of each attorney and/or party on whom the pleading, motion or other paper was served. (M.D. Ala LR 11.1) The Clerk’s Office has blank certificates of service available; you can also view one by clicking here.

What is the significance of the case number?

These are the parts of a case number:

[division#]:[2-digit year]-cv-[case #]-[presider judge initials]
With Division numbers: 1-Southern, 2-Northern, 3-Eastern

example: 2 : 07 CV 00014 - MHT

The first number represents the division that your case is in. For instance, 1 represents our Southern Division (which has a courthouse in Dothan), 2 represents our Northern Division (with a courthouse in Montgomery), and 3 represents our Eastern Division (with the courthouse in Opelika). The next element of the case number, 07, represents the year that the case is filed. The designation “CV" indicates a civil case and the final serial number represents, in this example, the 14th civil case filed in the calendar year. The initials at the end are the presiding Judge’s initials.

Should one mail or bring filings to Dothan and Opelika if the case will be tried there?

No. Only the Northern Division courthouse in Montgomery is staffed, but we will travel to Opelika and Dothan for trials as necessary.

Please mail everything to:

US District Court Clerk's Office

PO Box 711

Montgomery AL 36101

 

or bring it to our office at One Church Street, Montgomery, AL 36104.

What is the procedure for submitting documents to the court?

You should submit for filing with the Clerk of Court an original of motions or pleadings. However, should you need a stamped “filed” copy of a pleading or motion for your records, submit an extra copy along with the original and a self-addressed stamped envelope for return mailing. The Clerk’s Office will stamp both the original and the copy, place the original in the court’s case file, and return the copy to you. You may file pleadings with the court in person or by mail.

Our offices are open to the public from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, except on federal holidays. For ease of filing, the Clerk also maintains an after-hours filing depository box located outside the courthouse. Directions for filing are provided on the box, enabling parties to stamp documents with the date and time and deposit them at any time, including weekends and holidays.

Important Note: When you submit a pleading to the court, you must also mail or deliver a copy of the pleading to the defendant’s attorney, or, if the defendant has no attorney, to the defendant. As an attachment to your pleading, you must include a certificate of service that states the date that you mailed or delivered a copy of the pleading to the defendant.

How can one view a case’s docket activity?

The Clerk’s Office maintains an automated record or docket for every case. This docket is a chronological summary of all significant events in the history of the case. For example, each time you file a pleading or appear for a hearing, an entry summarizing the event is added to the case docket. You may view the docket (and specific documents) on the public access terminal located in the Clerk’s Office at the public computer desk. The Clerk’s Office is prepared to assist you. If you wish to print documents when you come to the Clerk’s Office, there is a 10¢ per page expense. If a court employee does the printing or copying for you, it costs 50¢ per page.

As an alternative, if you have a personal computer and modem with communications software, you may access our courts automated PACER system which allows you to review your case docket directly from your PC. However, in order to use this system you must call the PACER Service Center at 1-800-676-6856 and obtain a login and password. You may also visit their website at http://www.pacer.psc.uscourts.gov/. Using PACER on-line costs only pennies per page and registering for a PACER account is free of charge.

The Clerk’s Office staff can also provide basic docket information to you over the telephone. We can only let you know what is on the docket and cannot either interpret it for you or advise you in any way. Please click here for more information.

Is it possible for you to speak directly to a judge or judge’s staff about your case?

You are prohibited from all private or ex parte communication with the judge to whom your case is assigned. Ex parte communication occurs when one of the parties to a lawsuit, or when that party’s attorney, exchanges information with the assigned judge without the opposing party being present or without the knowledge and consent of the opposing party. Because of this prohibition, a judge will refuse, with very few exceptions, to speak or otherwise communicate ex parte with any party, or that party’s attorney, to a case that is assigned to him. Any communication between the assigned judge and a litigant must be in writing, and a copy of the communication must be sent either to the opposing party or that party’s attorney. For example, a party appearing pro se must send to the opposing party a copy of any motion sent to the court. Moreover, the motion must indicate that a copy has been sent to the opposing party. Remember, any request for action of the court must be in the form of a motion and cannot be submitted by letter.

If you call, may you speak with the Clerk of Court?

Yes, but typically, questions can be answered by a deputy or docket clerk. When you call with a question, it is best that you are prepared with your case number so that you can be directed to the civil or criminal docket clerk that is most familiar with your case.

How is the Clerk’s Office able to assist you?

Because the court cannot offer legal advice, we have constructed a worksheet that will remind you what our office can and cannot do to assist you.

If you wish to appeal the court’s decision on any order entered in your case, what steps should you take to do so?

There may be times during the pendency of your case in which the judge issues an order with which you disagree and which you may think an appellate court should review immediately. You should be aware, however, that most orders issued while a case is still ongoing cannot be appealed immediately, and you will have to wait until a final judgment has been entered in your case before the order(s) can be considered by an appellate court. The Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure explain when an order is appealable, and you must familiarize yourself with these rules before filing a notice of appeal. Filing a notice of appeal prematurely will delay final resolution of your case and may add unnecessary expense to your case.

If you file a notice of appeal, you will be required to pay a filing fee with the District Court unless you are permitted to proceed in forma pauperis. If you wish to proceed in forma pauperis for purposes of the appeal, then at the time of filing your notice of appeal, you must also file an application to proceed in forma pauperis on appeal.

Once the appellate court is determined to have jurisdiction over the appeal, it will direct the District Court Clerk’s Office to transmit the record from the District Court. If you are permitted to proceed in forma pauperis on appeal, you may still be required to pay for certain costs, such as the cost for transcribing any hearings or other proceedings that may have occurred before the judge.

Is there special information about Employment Discrimination cases?

Yes. A very common action filed by pro se litigants in federal court is alleged employment discrimination. Prior to filing an employment discrimination complaint, the plaintiff is required to follow specific administrative procedures. NOTE: This is not a complete statement of the law on the administrative procedures to follow in an employment discrimination case. The procedures are complicated, and it is the pro se litigant’s responsibility to make sure that all procedures are followed correctly and within the applicable time limit. If the requirements are not followed, your case may be dismissed.

If you wish to file an employment discrimination case in this court, you must first file your charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) where your case will be reviewed. Barring complications, the EEOC will issue you a Notice of Right to Sue indicating that (i) the administrative process has been completed, and (ii) no further action will be taken on behalf of the EEOC. Once this notice has been issued, you have a limited time period within which to file your lawsuit; failure to file a complaint within that time period will result in your case being dismissed by the court. A Notice of Right to Sue is not issued where the charges allege employment discrimination based on age; however, not having such a notice will not prevent you from filing an employment discrimination complaint based on this premise.

To assist a party appearing pro se in filing an employment discrimination complaint, the Office of the Clerk has established a complaint form to be used specifically for this purpose. This form will be provided to you upon request or click here. When completing the form, you must ensure the information you enter is legible and accurate to the best of your knowledge. When filing your complaint with the Clerk’s Office, you must present the Right to Sue Notice which will be included as part of your case.