Pro Se Process
The Clerk’s office can provide information and resources for individuals representing themselves without the assistance of an attorney. The information we give you about your case in our court is procedural in nature. Please refer to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and our local rules.
The Clerk and the Clerk’s Office employees are forbidden by law from giving you legal advice. Legal advice could be described, but is not limited to: offering interpretation of rules; recommending a course of action; predicting a judicial officer's decision and interpreting the meaning or effect of any court order or judgment.
Filing a Complaint
The Court has approved forms for pro se parties who wish to file complaints. You must select which form is most appropriate for your claim. Please note that forms for prisoner plaintiffs vary slightly from forms for non-prisoner plaintiffs.
If you file a complaint that is not on a court-supplied form, the Clerk will accept the paper for filing and forward it to an appropriate judicial officer for review. You may be directed to re-submit the complaint on an approved form; failure to file your complaint on a court-supplied form after having been instructed to do so by the Court may be grounds for dismissal.
As a pro se litigant you may not authorize another person who is not an attorney to appear for you. While you may receive help from other non-attorneys in drafting your pleadings and other papers, you must personally sign your complaint and all additional papers filed with the Court. If several individuals commence an action together, each person must personally sign the complaint.
The filing fee for most civil complaints is $350.00, plus an administrative fee of $50.00. At the time you file your complaint, you must either pay the fees in full or file a fully completed Motion to Proceed in Forma Pauperis with an accompanying Application to Proceed Without Prepayment of Fees. (Prisoner plaintiffs are not required to file the Motion; they may file just the Application, and include a six-month financial statement from their institution.)
You must prepare a summons for each defendant you have sued; there are a few exceptions to this requirement. Service of your summons will be performed by the Court. Our office can assist you with this process at the proper time. Please call (334) 954-3600 for more information.
After You File Your Complaint
Your case will be assigned a civil action number and be assigned to a particular Judge. After you receive your case number, you should write it on all documents you send to the Court that relate to your action. Do not presume that the Clerk of Court will know what action you want your papers filed in. It is your responsibility to write your case number on your filings.
The Clerk’s Office will review your complaint to make sure you have properly submitted it to the Court. For example, the Clerk’s Office will make sure you filed an original, signed complaint, that you paid the filing fee and administrative fee or filed a non-prisoner application to proceed without prepayment of fees, that your complaint has been filed on a court-approved form, and that you included summonses for all the defendants named in your complaint. If you do not properly submit your complaint, you may receive a “deficiency notice” from the Clerk’s Office. The notice will tell you what the difficiency is in your filing and provide you with a period of time to correct the deficiency. Failure to respond to a deficiency notice from the Clerk’s Office could lead to dismissal of your complaint.
If you are a non-prisoner and if the Court grants your application and permits you to proceed in forma pauperis, you are typically relieved of your obligation to pay the $350.00 filing fee and $50.00 administrative fee.
If the Court denies your application, you will be required to pay the filing fee and administrative fee in full. The Court will provide you with an additional period of time to pay the fees. Failure to pay the fees in the time allotted, or to show good cause for failing to do so, could result in dismissal of your case.
If you are proceeding in forma pauperis, the Judge assigned to your case is required by statute to screen your complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2). It provides:
Notwithstanding any filing fee, or any portion thereof, that may have been paid, the court shall dismiss the case at any time if the court determines that—
(A) the allegation of poverty is untrue; or
(B) the action or appeal—
(i) is frivolous or malicious;
(ii) fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted; or
(iii) seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.
Your complaint will NOT be served on the defendants until it has been screened by the Court.
Many pro se plaintiffs want to know how long it will take for the Court to screen their complaints. There is no set amount of time. The Court tries to review complaints in a timely manner. However, you must remember that the judges have hundreds of cases assigned to them each year. Do not be alarmed if you do not hear from the Court immediately after filing your complaint. You can always call or write the Clerk’s Office to check on the status of your case.
After the Court has screened your complaint, the Court will issue an order. The order will inform you if any of your claims were dismissed, and if so, why. If all of your claims are dismissed at the screening stage, then your complaint will not be served on defendants. If any of your claims are allowed to proceed past initial screening for further development, the Court will issue an order informing you what claims will be allowed to proceed.
If the Court allows any of your claims to proceed and you are proceeding in forma pauperis, the Court will serve your complaint and the summonses you prepared on the defendants against whom the action proceeds. Remember that it is your responsibility to make sure that all the defendants named in your complaint have been served with the complaint. The most common reason service is not perfected is that the plaintiff has not provided the correct address for the defendant named in the complaint. You may write the Clerk’s Office at any time to check on the status of service.
If you paid the filing fee, you are required to serve your complaint and summons on each defendant. You must comply with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4 in effectuating service. If you do not wish to serve each defendant yourself, you may request the Court to direct the United States Marshals Service to serve your summonses and complaint. Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(c)(3).
After service of process, the defendant will have a period of time to respond to your complaint.
The defendant will either: file an answer, file a motion, or do nothing. The answer is a formal response to the complaint by the defendant, including any denials of and defenses to the allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint.
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(a)(1)(A), “a defendant must serve an answer: (i) within 21 days after being served with the summons and complaint; or (ii) if it has timely waived service under Rule 4(d), within 60 days after the request for waiver was sent, or within 90 days after it was sent to the defendant outside any judicial district of the United States.” The requirements for answers are set out in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8. Unless directed to do so by the Court, you should not respond to the answer.
A motion by a defendant at this stage would likely ask the Court to dismiss the complaint for one of the reasons set out in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12. If the defendant files a motion to dismiss, you will have 21 days from the date of service to respond. In the response, you may explain to the Judge why you believe the action should not be dismissed. The defendant will then be permitted to file a reply within 14 days of the date of service of the response. After the time for filing a reply passes, the motion will be submitted to the Judge for a decision. If the defendant fails to timely answer or move to dismiss the complaint, you may seek entry of default judgment against the defendant by making a motion for a default under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 55.
The case may end before a trial either by way of a dispositive motion (motion to dismiss or motion for summary judgment) or a settlement. Dispositive motions are motions that dispose of the case without a complete trial. Two common types of dispositive motions are motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment. The scheduling order will provide a deadline for filing dispositive motions.
Motion to Dismiss–Rule 12(b). A defendant may move to dismiss a complaint for a variety of reasons. Some common grounds for dismissal are lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter and failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Sometimes a defendant files a motion to dismiss before filing an answer. Motions to dismiss are governed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b).
Summary Judgment- Rule 56. A trial is necessary only when there are disputed issues of material fact. At some point in the case, it may become apparent that the facts in the case are not in dispute, and one or more parties may file a motion for summary judgment. A motion for summary judgment can be filed at any time after the answer is filed. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 governs motions for summary judgment. If the Court grants the motion in whole, the case will be over, and judgment will be entered in favor of the party who moved for summary judgment. If the Court grants the motion in part, the issues that are in dispute will be tried or scheduled for a settlement conference and those issues on which summary judgment was granted will not be tried. If the Court denies the motion, the case will be set for trial or scheduled for a settlement conference.
Another way in which a case may end without a trial is when the parties reach what is called a settlement. A settlement is an agreement between the plaintiff and defendant to resolve the lawsuit. Generally, but not always, it involves a monetary payment to the plaintiff in exchange for the dismissal of the case. The Judge or Magistrate Judge may hold one or more settlement conferences. Parties can discuss settlement and settle the case at any time and do not need court intervention to settle a case. If a case is settled, a short order will generally be issued dismissing the case.
The Court encourages litigants to consider the benefits of mediation. Successful mediation saves the time and expense of a trial, and at the same time, permits the parties to play an active role in the final decision about their case. The mediation process generally involves a joint meeting with all parties and counsel to discuss the case and each side's position. Please review the Mediation section for more information.
Going to Trial
The last stage of a lawsuit in district court is a trial. If the Court does not dismiss the case or grant a motion for summary judgment, and if the parties do not agree to a settlement, then the case will go to trial. Very few cases actually make it this far.
There are two types of trials: jury trials and bench trials. At a jury trial the Court instructs the jury about the law. The jury will then apply the law to the facts that they have found to be true and determine who wins the lawsuit.
A jury trial occurs when:
- The lawsuit is a type of case that the law allows to be decided by a jury; and
- At least one of the parties asked for a jury trial within the right time frame.
The time frame is set forth in Rule 38. A party that does not make a jury trial demand on time forfeits that right. At a bench trial, there is no jury. The Judge will determine the law, the facts, and the winner of the lawsuit.
A bench trial is held when:
- None of the parties asked for a jury trial (or did not ask at the right time); or
- The lawsuit is a type of case that the law does not allow a jury to decide; or
- The parties have agreed that they do not want a jury trial.
The Judge sets the date that the trial will begin. When the Judge sets the trial date, he or she usually enters an order setting pretrial deadlines for filing or submitting various documents associated with the trial. Once trial has begun, it usually takes place in the following order: jury selection, opening statements, plaintiff’s evidence, defendant’s evidence, closing arguments, and jury deliberations.
Appeals and Interlocutory Appeals
Any party to a formal court action has a right to file an appeal to the jurisdictional appellate court from an appealable order entered by the district court. Appeals from cases in the Alabama Middle District are heard by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
In general, only final orders or judgments from the district court may be appealed. This kind of appeal is called an appeal as of right. In most cases, a final order or judgment is entered when all issues in the case have been resolved in favor of either the plaintiff or the defendant. In order to appeal, a final order or judgment should be entered on the docket of your case. A final order or judgment is the document which announces the final decision with respect to your case (that is, whether you won or lost) and closes the case with the district court.
You have thirty days (or sixty days if the case involves a party who is the United States, a federal agency or federal employee) from the date that the final order or judgment was entered on the docket to file a Notice of Appeal. The Notice of Appeal is filed in the district court where the judgment you are appealing was entered. If you miss the deadline, you may file a motion for extension of time. There is no guarantee your motion will be granted so you should make every effort to meet the deadline.
A Notice of Appeal is a one-page document containing your name, a description of the final order or judgment (or part thereof) being appealed, and the name of the court to which the appeal is taken (the Eleventh Circuit).
The fee for filing a Notice of Appeal is $505.00. If you cannot afford to pay the fee, you may file a non-prisoner application to proceed without prepayment of the fee. Once you file a Notice of Appeal, the District Court no longer has jurisdiction over your case, and all questions regarding the case should be addressed to the Clerk of the Eleventh Circuit.
In some limited circumstances, you may appeal a non-final decision while your case is ongoing. These types of appeals are called interlocutory appeals. The limited circumstances in which you may seek an interlocutory appeal are set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 1292. If you choose to file an interlocutory appeal, your Notice of Appeal is filed in the district court where the decision you are appealing was filed.