If You’re A Pro Se Plaintiff, This Manual Is For You

This article was written by Brian Vukadinovich, an experienced pro se litigant and the author of Motion for Justice: I Rest My Case.

The purpose of this manual is to give the pro se plaintiff helpful insights into essential areas of the law. This should help prepare you to represent yourself, hopefully to a successful conclusion.

This information will help the pro se plaintiff better understand the obstacles you are likely to encounter and perhaps overcome with a better understanding of the principles that will be necessary to prosecute your case and to avoid dismissal by motions to dismiss or motions for summary judgment that will in all likelihood be employed by defense attorneys.

Under the law you have every right to represent yourself, as the Judiciary Act of 1789 states: “That in all courts of the United States, the parties may plead and manage their own causes personally…”

I. Prerequisites to filing discrimination suits

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Depending on the state you live in or the nature of action you are pursuing, you may be required to first submit a notice of tort claim if your claim is a state claim against a state governmental agency. Be sure to research your state’s laws with respect to time periods for required notices so you don’t unintentionally waive any of your legal rights for failure to timely submit a tort claims notice.

If your claim involves discrimination in violation of a federal statute, then you must first file an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charge in the office of the appropriate jurisdiction. Generally discrimination claims for violations of federal statutes require a discrimination charge to be filed with the EEOC within 180 days of the occurrence of the discriminatory act. Failure to timely file the discrimination charge with the EEOC could result in waiver of your right to seek redress for the discrimination claim(s) in a court of law.

Once a discrimination charge is filed with the EEOC, your charge will be investigated. If it finds cause, the EEOC will issue a finding. If it is not able to issue a finding of cause based on the information provided, the EEOC will issue a right to sue letter giving you the right to file a lawsuit in a court of law. You have 90 days to file your lawsuit from the date you receive a right to sue letter from the EEOC.

II. Familiarity with the governing rules of court

It is very important to familiarize yourself with the governing rules of the court where you will be filing your cause of action. Many pro se’s make the mistake of proceeding with their litigation without studying the governing rules of procedure, and that can be very costly in terms of the fate of your case. Defense lawyers love to find technical flaws with a pro se’s procedure and they look for any missteps that the pro se may make in not following the governing rules.

Many times the failure to know and follow the rules of procedure result in a dismissal of a case. These dismissals can be avoided to a large degree simply by taking the time to familiarize yourself with the rules. That would include the state or federal rules of procedure, depending on which venue you are in, and also the rules of the specific (local) court you are in.

If the case is in federal court, it would be the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. If the case is in state court, you would need to research the rules of procedure from that particular state. In addition to the federal or state rules of procedure, most courts also have their own “local rules” that you should get familiar with to ensure you are following procedures designated by the local court. You also should familiarize yourself with the Rules of Evidence for the venue, i.e., state or federal court.

III. Familiarity with terms generally used in litigation

You will run into many legal terms that you may have never heard of before, for example such as “in limine,” “void dire,” “Daubert motions,” “estoppel” and many others, and it is very important that you learn what those terms mean if and when they come up in your case.

You can do this by obtaining a dictionary of legal terms or of course with an internet search.

IV. Preparing and filing the complaint

The general rules of pleading are such that you must file a complaint stating a claim for relief. To adequately state a proper claim for relief, the complaint must contain three essential elements:

  1. a short and plain statement of the grounds for the court’s jurisdiction, unless the court already has jurisdiction and the claim needs no new jurisdiction support;
  2. a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief; and
  3. a demand for the relief sought, which may include relief in the alternative or different types of relief.

It’s important that you as a pro se plaintiff look up the rules of pleading in the venue in which you are filing your case. The laws vary from state to state, and some states, like Indiana, do not permit a dollar amount to be stated. Federal complaints allow plaintiffs to state the dollar amount they are seeking in damages.

If you want a jury trial, you must state your jury demand in your complaint. If you are in a federal court, they are required to liberally construe your pleadings and apply less stringent standards under Haines v. Kerner, et al., 401 U.S. 519 (1972).

It is important to state sufficient facts in your complaint to withstand a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim for relief. This will be one of the first things the defense will look for when your case is filed, as attorneys routinely try this tactic early in the litigation if they see a flaw in your complaint.

V. Discovery

Conducting effective discovery is a crucial aspect of prosecuting your case. Discovery helps you obtain information and evidence to prove your case, and it also helps to defend against any dispositive motions. If your cause of action is in a federal court, you should study the discovery portions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. If your cause of action is in a state court, you should study the discovery-related rules for that state.

Rule 26(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states:

“Unless otherwise limited by court order, the scope of discovery is as follows: Parties may obtain discovery regarding non-privileged matter that is relevant to any party’s claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case, considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties’ resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit. Information within this scope of discovery need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable.

There are several avenues of discovery that you should be familiar with and prepared to use.

  • Interrogatories are written questions you can submit to any and all of the defendants in your case that are to be answered under oath. Generally, the defendants will have thirty (30) days to respond to your interrogatories from the date they receive them.
  • Depositions are oral questions you can ask of any of the defendants in your case. While this is a very effective means of discovery, it can be expensive as you will have to employ a court reporter for this.
  • Requests for Production are requests you can make to the defendants to produce documents and other tangible things for your review.
  • Requests for Admissions are written requests you can make to any and all of the defendants in your case to admit or deny specific facts and the genuineness of any described documents.

Effective use of discovery can be very helpful in proving your case and also in responding to any motions for summary judgment.

VI. Dispositive motions

In most cases, and especially when you are proceeding pro se, you can expect the defendants to file some type of a dispositive motion in an effort to kill your case before trial. Usually this happens with a motion to dismiss for a technical reason of some kind, or a motion for summary judgment where the defendants will argue there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

You must understand what a “fact” is in the eyes of the law; a fact can be a statement made or an action taken. And that “fact” has to be “material,” i.e. something that matters, something of consequence to the issue. A “genuine dispute” is proven by contradictory or conflicting evidence. “Matters of law” are the components of a claim as defined by statutes and appellate court decisions. If your action is in federal court this rule would be found in Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. If you are in a state court, you should research that state’s summary judgment rules.

This is a very critical aspect of your case that you should be well prepared to respond to. If you fail to file an adequate response to the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, and the motion is granted, your case is over and you get no trial. You can, of course, appeal the decision to an appellate court, but it is always better to file a strong response in the trial court and defeat a motion for summary judgment.

You should be prepared to rebut the case law filed by the defendant and to submit case law that is favorable to your position. You need to learn how to research the case law relevant to the issues of your case for two substantial reasons: first, you need to cite supporting case law to convince the judge that the law is on your side on the issue, and secondly, the defense lawyer(s) will generally cite a multitude of cases to support the defendant’s position.

VII. Preparing for trial

There will be a multitude of things you will have to do to prepare for trial. These things will be outlined by the court in an order controlling the case, such as deadlines for filing any pretrial motions. Pretrial motions include dispositive motions and motions in limine designed to prevent the opposing side from introducing certain items of information or evidence. There will also be proposed final pretrial orders, contentions, stipulations of fact, exhibit lists and witness lists.

If the matter is going to be tried to a jury rather than a bench trial, you will also prepare proposed jury instructions and your objections to the defendants’ jury instructions. Depending on your court’s local rules, you will have to prepare voir dire questions, which are questions to be asked of potential jurors during jury selection.

You will of course have to have copies of all your exhibits, labeled, with a copy that you will introduce into evidence and a copy for the court and defense counsel. You should become familiar with how to do an effective opening and closing statement. Again, be familiar with the rules of procedure and rules of evidence so you will know how to get your evidence admitted at trial. If you fail to do adequate preparation and don’t do your homework to become knowledgeable with the rules of trial procedure and rules of evidence, you will face many objections by opposing counsel and you will become overwhelmed at trial. Your chances of success will be greatly diminished.

Trial preparation can be an overwhelming process and it is very important to do your due diligence with respect to preparing your pleadings and your legal arguments, and being able to address legal points that come up during the trial. When you are preparing your various court papers, it can be helpful to review other court cases as court files are a matter of public record and you can learn a great deal from studying court pleadings in other cases that went to trial. For example, you can take jury instructions from another case similar to yours and tailor the jury instructions for your case. You can do the same thing with pleadings and tailor them to your case.

Because most trials involve a multitude of documents, this alone can be a potential problem for you to handle at trial and will disrupt your thought process and the flow of the trial if you find yourself overwhelmed in keeping track of and looking for particular documents throughout the trial. For this reason, if you have somebody that is responsible and competent enough to help you keep track of the documents and help you stay organized at trial, you can ask the judge for permission to allow this person to sit with you at trial and assist you with the paperwork aspect of things. This would be a tremendous help to you and something that would be wise for you to consider.

10 thoughts on “If You’re A Pro Se Plaintiff, This Manual Is For You”


    Thank you very much for putting this out for the public. I just found this while I am in a hopeless place. I had no choice but to become pro se due to no attorney willing to take my case because it is against my former employers in the Federal Government, which always seems like they are covered under immunity no matter how much they ruin your life. I don’t know what I am doing no matter how many times I read the local and civil rules because it is absolute jargon which has caused me many mistakes. The difficult part of this is that the defense refuses to participate in the discovery process. I didn’t know how to rebut the motion to dismiss but the information provided here gives me some idea. I thought it be sufficient to state your response alone but now I see your responses must be accompanied by any case law in favor of the context. It appears this is common to be written with virtually anything provided to the court. Thanks again for your hard work and care to help others. It is appreciated and came to me at a time of feeling defeated. God Bless All involved!!

  2. Brian Vukadinovich

    Hi Monique, I’m very sorry to hear that you are having so much difficulty dealing with the discovery process and how the court is treating you. As far as your pro se pleadings are concerned, please know that the court is obligated under the Supreme Court precedent of Haines v. Kerner, et al., 401 U.S. 519; 92 S.Ct. 594, 30 L.Ed.2d 652 (1972) to give your pro se pleading liberal reading and less stringent standards since your pleadings are being prepared without the assistance of legal counsel. Don’t be afraid to cite this Supreme Court case if necessary to let the court know that it has an obligation to give you some latitude with your written pleadings. Haines v. Kerner, et al., 401 U.S. 519; 92 S.Ct. 594, 30 L.Ed.2d 652 (1972). As for the defense’s apparent unwillingness to participate in the discovery process, that is something that is not allowed under the discovery rules. You can file a motion to compel under Rule 37, file a motion to compel discovery and explain to the court what the defense is doing in refusing to participate in the discovery process. Google for caselaws from your particular judicial district and there should be some caselaws you can cite. If you can’t locate any caselaws, file the motion without caselaws but cite Rule 37 (but it would be better if you can include some caselaws, even just one or two). I hope this helps.

  3. Hello. My name is Tara and I’ve recently been granted the right to file a civil lawsuit over discrimination from the EEOC (federal sector). I was wondering if I could use material evidence from the EEOC’s discovery process in the civil case and if there’s a certain motion to file to go about it, or will the civil case have it’s own discovery step? Thank you.

    1. Brian Vukadinovich

      Hi Tara. I assume you are going to file your civil case in federal court? The answer to your question is yes, you can use material evidence from the EEOC’s discovery process in the civil case. The evidence you unearthed in that process is admissible in the civil case, and there is no “certain motion” per se that you will need to file to incorporate it into the civil case. It will be treated much the same as any other evidence you may obtain/discover through other means, with the caveat that all evidence is subject to objections and legal arguments in opposition thereto. When you file your civil case the case will have its own discovery steps so you need to get familiar with the court’s discovery rules process, and all other processes as well. For discovery, you will want to get familiar with Rule 26 to get you started. Now remember, when you filed your civil case you will have the right to file discovery requests, issue subpoenas for evidence and testimony, submit interrogatories to defendants, take depositions of defendants and non-defendant witnesses, submit requests for admissions, etc., so be sure to familiarize yourself with all of the governing rules so that you will know what you are entitled to do in terms of discovery, and also in terms of other aspects of the litigation that are sure to come up such as motions to dismiss, motions for summary judgment, etc. If you are in federal court, you want to review the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and also the Federal Rules of Evidence, if you are in state court, you will want to review that state’s rules of civil procedure and rules of evidence. Another thing you will want to do is get familiar with your court’s “local rules”, many pro se’s neglect to do this.

  4. This document is a clever trap, the information needed by a Pro Se is woven in oblique words and gives no real answers as to how one would navigate thru the system. This is how America treats it’s Pro Se applicants. It’s hide and go seek and your hiding in the shadows
    basically creating a SCARE as to: Can anyone really think about doing this. The article is manipulative and weaves a culture of apprehension. Lawyer’s are unavailable to the Pro Se and all the nonsense of available help is just that. There is virtually no help for
    the common person. The help is poisonous at best and really what happens is today’s Lawyers are MONEY hounds sniffing there clients. The Legal system in the US is flawed and based on Corporate greed. What is needed is not out there because it’s all about money rather than service. So your article is at best worthless to anyone looking for real help. Reminds me of Donald Trump who
    is a clown at using the Law; The Law that he twists and turns and buys Lawyers like dead fish. Shame on you and you I’m here to
    help you. Sugar Coated bs. Amen

  5. I have found your shared information very helpful. Can you tell me what happens or how do I retify the defendant saying they never received my interrogatories before close of discovery? Aren’t interrogatories part of discovery? I forwarded them to the defendant again 1 week before close of discovery but was told it was too late. So, how can I incorporate them now. Although alot of my interrogatories were in my initial disclosures, does this help me at all? Thanks for your time and response.

  6. LaPearil C Outlaw

    I am currently Pro Se and found everything that BRIAN, stated this Plaintiff has done. The defendants’ lawyers only brought motions to dismiss my case in its entirety. The initial motion to dismiss 12 (b)(6) included leaving off the Inc., on the company name, and the timing of the EEOC motion was DENY. Second, the motion to dismiss 26 (f) timing of the EEOC and failure to state a claim ( most common). Instead of following rule 26 (f) defendant’s lawyers filed a motion to “STAY” GRANTED. The defendants’ lawyers included the Plaintiff’s failure to request leave to amend The Plaintiff later made that request and the defendants’ lawyers filed a motion in opposition to the Plaintiff’s request for leave.”Plaintiffs may respond to a motion to dismiss by amending the complaint as a matter of right, i.e. without permission from the courts or from the parties. Fladurng v. city of Boulder, 165 Colo. 244, 438 Pl 2d 688 (1968).The plaintiff then filed a Rule 34 motion to compel discovery 26(f) and Rule 19-failure to join a party. Next for this Plaintiffs for the Defendants will be the interrogatories At this point am ahead of them and have time to learn these processes and the structure of the paperwork. Thank GOD for Youtube.

  7. Steven Levine:
    I agree with Mr Levine. Enough information to hang ones self. The same problem with the information you get from the Court. Just enough to get into the process (e.g. Complaint, summons, etc) but little past that. The key is the Hearsay rule and are your documents Non-hearsay so you can get them into evidence. A pro-se may not have witnesses so only the documents count. If you want to improve this: List all type of document (e.g. contract, documents received from other party, documents mailed to other party, web pages, Your record of contracts) and address how one can get each into evidence. My2Cents

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