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Pro Se Court Rulings
A Compilation Of Case Law

Various Rulings Related To Being Pro Se
(representing yourself in court)

Found at: American Bar Association

Pro Se Case Law

Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 520 (1971)
Plaintiff-inmate filed pro se complaint against prison seeking compensation for damages sustained while placed in solitary confinement. In finding plaintiff's complaint legally sufficient, Supreme Court found that pro se pleadings should be held to "less stringent standards" than those drafted by attorneys.

Ellis v. Maine, 448 F.2d 1325, 1328 (1st Cir. 1971)
Pro se petitioner who asserted complete ignorance of the law subsequently presented a brief that was manifestly written by a person with legal knowledge. Court held that a brief prepared in any substantial part by a member of the bar must be signed by that member.

Nichols v. Keller, 19 Cal.Rptr.2d 601 (1993)
Plaintiff who consulted defendants' law firms regarding workers' compensation claim was not advised of potential for additional third party claim before statue of limitations expired. Defendants argued that plaintiff's representation was limited only to filing workers' compensation claim and no duty existed to advise plaintiff in any other matter. Court found that representation was not limited solely to workers compensation claim, and defendants should have advised plaintiff regarding third party claim.

Johnson v. Board of County Comm'rs, 868 F.Supp. 1226 (D. Colo. 1994)
Former sheriff department workers bring sexual harassment suit against county sheriff in his individual and official capacities. Attorney representing sheriff enters limited appearance on behalf of his official capacity. Court finds that attorney cannot enter limited appearance on behalf of sheriff's official capacity. Attorney representing sheriff must act for the entire person, including individual and official capacities. Entering such limited appearance is not competent and zealous representation as required by ethical rules as it leaves officer undefended on individual capacity claims. Court further finds that ghostwriting of documents for pro se litigants may subject lawyers to contempt of court. Ghostwriting gives litigants unfair advantage in that pro se pleadings are construed liberally and pro se litigants are granted greater latitude in hearings and trials. Ghostwriting also results in evasion of obligations imposed on attorneys by statute, code, and rule, and involves lawyers in litigants' misrepresentation of pro se status in violation of ethical rules.

Laremont-Lopez v. Southeastern Tidewater Opportunity Ctr., 968 F.Supp. 1075 (E.D. Va. 1997)
Over a period of time, pro se plaintiffs submitted pleadings that had been written by attorneys pursuant to discrete-task representation contracts. The attorneys did not sign the pleadings, and in most cases did not appear as counsel of record. When ordered to show cause by the court as to why they should not be held in contempt of court, attorneys argued that the professional relationships created with the litigants ended once they had drafted the pleadings. Court held that there was insufficient evidence to show that the attorneys knowingly misled the court or intentionally violated ethical or procedural rules and declined to impose sanctions. However, court stated that the practice of ghostwriting pleadings without acknowledging authorship and without asking court approval to withdraw from representation was inconsistent with Fed. R. Civ. P. 11 and Rule 83.1(G) of the Local Rules for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Court stated that allowing attorneys to ghostwrite pleadings for pro se plaintiffs abused additional leeway given to pro se filings.

U.S. v. Eleven Vehicles, 966 F.Supp. 361 (E.D.Pa. 1997)
Court finds that ghostwriting by attorney for a pro se litigant implicates an attorney's duty of candor to the court, interferes with the court's ability to supervise the litigation, and misrepresents the litigant's right to more liberal construction as a pro se litigant.

Wesley v. Don Stein Buick, Inc., 987 F.Supp. 884 (D.Kan. 1997)
In suit brought by pro se plaintiff, defendants sought order requiring plaintiff to disclose whether she was an attorney or received the assistance of a lawyer. In expressing legal and ethical concerns regarding the ghostwriting of pleadings by attorneys, the court held the defendants were entitled to the order.

Ricotta v. California, 4 F.Supp.2d 961 (S.D. Cal. 1998)
Attorney licensed in the State of California did not violate procedural, substantive, and professional rules of a federal court by lending some assistance to friends, family members, and others with whom she shared specialized knowledge. Attorney performed research and prepared rough drafts of portions of pro se litigant's pleadings in an action against various official defendants, but did not sign the documents. Because attorney did not gather and anonymously present legal arguments with the actual or constructive knowledge that plaintiff would use them in court, and because attorney did not engage in extensive, undisclosed participation that permitted plaintiff to falsely appear as being without professional assistance, attorney had not violated any rules.

Ostrovsky v. Monroe (In re Ellingson), 230 B.R. 426 (Bankr.D.Mont. 1999)
Paralegal who helped a business draft and file bankruptcy papers was found to be engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. Court notes that if an attorney acted in the same manner as paralegal, that person would be guilty of "ghost writing," which is described as the act of undisclosed attorney who assists a self-represented litigant by drafting his or her pleadings as part of "unbundled" or limited legal services. Court also notes that ghostwriting violates court rules, particularly Fed.R.Civ.P. 11, as well as ABA Standing Committee Opinion 1414 in Ethics and Professional Responsibility.

Jones v. Bresset, 2000 W: 3311607 (47 Pa. D. & C 4th 60)
Defendant was an attorney hired by plaintiff in the midst of plaintiff’s bankruptcy proceedings. The plaintiff had already obtained counsel of record, and hired defendant solely for the purpose of securing an accounting in the bankruptcy proceeding. The defendant alerted plaintiff of limited scope of his representation, advising plaintiff that problems may arise outside the scope of his representation. Plaintiff commenced a legal malpractice suit against his attorney of record stating negligence, and included the defendant in the claim. The court found that since the defendant distinctly limited the scope of his representation and urged the plaintiff to hire separate counsel for other matters, the defendant had no legal duty to investigate or advise plaintiff on existence of malpractice by attorney of record.

Ostevoll v. Ostevoll, 2000 WL 1611123 (S.D. Ohio)
Respondent argues that the Petition should be stricken pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 11 because, although allegedly filed pro se, petitioner clearly received substantial assistance from counsel in the preparation and filing of the Petition. Court finds that if a pleading is prepared in any substantial part by a member of the bar, it must be signed by that attorney to avoid misrepresentation.

Streit v. Covington & Crowe, 82 Cal.App. 4th 441 (2000)
In a lawsuit, plaintiff’s counsel of record requested that another firm make a "special appearance" at a summary judgment motion, appearing on behalf of counsel of record. Plaintiff filed a legal malpractice suit after a summary judgment was entered against her, arguing that the special appearance created an attorney-client relationship. The appellate court found that an attorney making a special appearance represents the client’s interests and has a professional attorney-client relationship with the client. Further, the voluntary appearance created a limited representation status and not a true "special appearance".

Armor v. Lantz, 207 W. VA 672, 535 S.E.2d 737 (2000)
Appellants brought legal malpractice suit against local attorney retained by Ohio lawyer in products liability case. Appellants claimed that West Virginia lawyer who acted as local counsel was liable for malpractice of Ohio lawyer. Court found that, while it was difficult to clearly define the role of local counsel according to West Virginia rules, the local attorney had effectively entered a limited representation agreement and was therefore not responsible for all aspects of the case or for the Ohio lawyer’s conduct.

Duran v. Carris, 238 F.3d 1268 (10th Cir. 2001)
Lawyer participated in ghostwriting appellate brief for a pro se litigant. Court holds that participation by an attorney in drafting otherwise pro se appellate brief is per se substantial legal assistance, and must be acknowledged by signature. An attorney must refuse to provide ghostwriting assistance unless purported pro se client specifically commits to disclose attorney's assistance to the court upon filing.

Lynne v. Laufer, No. A-2079-01T2, (N.J. Super. App. Div. Apr. 8, 2003)
Attorney, with matrimonial client's consent after consultation, limited the scope of his representation to a review of the terms of a mediated agreement without going outside its four corners. Court holds that it is not a breach of the standard of care for an attorney under a signed precisely drafted consent agreement to limit the scope of representation to not perform such services in the course of representing a matrimonial client that he or she might otherwise perform absent such a consent.

Melvin Finance, Inc. v. Artis, 157 N.C. App. 716, 2003 WL 21153426 (N.C.App.)
Defendant retained an attorney on a limited basis, following an action filed by the plaintiff to recover costs on a defaulted loan. Limited representation attorney agreed to file responsive pleadings and negotiate a settlement agreement, and filed a notice of limited appearance. While the defendant received notice of a scheduled hearing and forwarded it to his limited representation attorney, neither defendant nor attorney appeared at the hearing and, consequently, an arbitration award was entered for the plaintiff. Defendant filed a motion to set aside judgment, which was denied. On appeal, the defendant claimed the limited representation attorney’s failure to appear at the hearing amounted to excusable neglect and that the judgment should be set aside. The court found that since the defendant received notice of the hearing and had retained the attorney on a limited basis, that the limited representation attorney’s conduct did not constitute excusable neglect. The lower court decision was affirmed.

Sharp v. Sharp, 2006 WL 3088067 (Va.Cir.Court)
Complainant and respondent were co-tenants of real estate property. The respondent appeared pro se during a hearing before the commissioner in chancery, but then hired an attorney who appeared in a limited capacity at several other hearings. On appeal, the court sought to determine whether or not the attorney could appear in a limited capacity and whether the attorney’s appearance qualified him as official "attorney of record". The court found that it was not bound by agreements made between client and attorney and that a court may "require more of an attorney than mere compliance with the ethical constraints of the Rules of Professional Conduct". The court found that the attorney could make a motion to withdraw once he completed the tasks agreed upon, but that the court had ultimate discretion in granting the withdrawal.

Discover Bank v. McCullough, 2008 W: 248975 (Tenn. Ct. App.)
In a dispute over a bank card balance, cardholders chose to represent themselves after card issuer filed suit. The self-represented litigants mailed a response to court but then failed to appear at the hearing, which prompted the court to grant a default judgment to the card issuer. During the appeals process, the self represented filed papers not known within the jurisdiction. When the case reached the appellate court, the Court found that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction because the self represented litigants failed to file a court recognized notice. The court found that while it appreciated the difficulties encountered by self-represented litigants, it could not "abdicate its role as an impartial, neutral arbiter and become an advocate for the self-represented litigant".

Burgess v. Vitola, 2008 WL 821539 (N.C.Super.)
In a legal dispute that surfaced over an alleged invasion of personal property, the plaintiff resided in North Carolina and the defendant resided in California. The defendant filed papers with the assistance of a California attorney but, on record, represented herself. The plaintiff sought recourse, arguing that assistance from counsel amounted to the unauthorized practice of law since the attorney was not licensed in North Carolina. As the Rules of Professional Conduct do not require an attorney who has provided drafting assistance to make an appearance as counsel of record, the court found that it had no authority to sanction the California attorney. It did, however, require that the defendant file an affidavit that she intended to proceed pro se and not seek legal assistance unless the attorney is licensed to practice in North Carolina.

Future Lawn, Inc v. Steinberg, 2008 Ohio 4127
Attorney was hired by appellant to handle a legal malpractice claim. The attorney was referred by appellant’s general counsel, to act in a in a matter concerning the handling of an environmental report in a real estate transaction several years prior. A settlement was reached in the matter and around the same time, general counsel was replaced. Following a dispute regarding unpaid legal fees, appellants were sued by former general counsel. Appellants responded with a separate suit, alleging counsel had committed malpractice. They implicated the limited representation attorney, suggesting the attorney had an obligation to advise them of issues surrounding claims of general counsel’s malpractice. The court found that representation by attorney was expressly limited to the original malpractice claim, and that no requirement existed for client consultation before limited the scope of representation. The attorney had no duty to investigate actions of general counsel.


More Pro Se Case Law

Found at : Judicial Immunity Website

Elmore v. McCammon (1986) 640 F. Supp. 905

"... the right to file a lawsuit pro se is one of the most important rights under the constitution and laws."

Jenkins v. McKeithen, 395 U.S. 411, 421 (1959); Picking v. Pennsylvania R. Co., 151 Fed 2nd 240; Pucket v. Cox, 456 2nd 233

Pro se pleadings are to be considered without regard to technicality; pro se litigants' pleadings are not to be held to the same high standards of perfection as lawyers.

Maty v. Grasselli Chemical Co., 303 U.S. 197 (1938)

"Pleadings are intended to serve as a means of arriving at fair and just settlements of controversies between litigants. They should not raise barriers which prevent the achievement of that end. Proper pleading is important, but its importance consists in its effectiveness as a means to accomplish the end of a just judgment."

Puckett v. Cox, 456 F. 2d 233 (1972) (6th Cir. USCA)

It was held that a pro se complaint requires a less stringent reading than one drafted by a lawyer per Justice Black in Conley v. Gibson (see case listed above, Pro Se Rights Section).

Picking v. Pennsylvania Railway, 151 F.2d. 240, Third Circuit Court of Appeals

The plaintiff's civil rights pleading was 150 pages and described by a federal judge as "inept". Nevertheless, it was held "Where a plaintiff pleads pro se in a suit for protection of civil rights, the Court should endeavor to construe Plaintiff's Pleadings without regard to technicalities."

Puckett v. Cox, 456 F. 2d 233 (1972) (6th Cir. USCA)

It was held that a pro se complaint requires a less stringent reading than one drafted by a lawyer per Justice Black in Conley v. Gibson (see case listed above, Pro Se Rights Section).

Roadway Express v. Pipe, 447 U.S. 752 at 757 (1982)

"Due to sloth, inattention or desire to seize tactical advantage, lawyers have long engaged in dilatory practices... the glacial pace of much litigation breeds frustration with the Federal Courts and ultimately, disrespect for the law."

Sherar v. Cullen, 481 F. 2d 946 (1973)

"There can be no sanction or penalty imposed upon one because of his exercise of Constitutional Rights."

Schware v. Board of Examiners, United State Reports 353 U.S. pages 238, 239.

"The practice of law cannot be licensed by any state/State."

Sims v. Aherns, 271 SW 720 (1925)

"The practice of law is an occupation of common right."

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