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FAQs: Pro Se FAQ
How do I file a lawsuit?
The first step in filing a lawsuit is to write a complaint. A complaint is a written statement in which you set forth the facts of your case and state what you would like to happen or what relief you are seeking. You must submit your complaint to the Clerk of Court’s office and either pay the appropriate filing fee or seek permission from the judge to proceed without pre-paying the filing fee.
If I cannot afford the filing fee, can I still file a lawsuit?
If you cannot afford the filing fee, you may ask the judge for permission to proceed without prepaying the filing fee. This is called petitioning the court to proceed in forma pauperis. You must submit a “Request to Proceed Without Prepayment of Fees and/or Costs.” This form is available at the Clerk of Court’s office or click here. After you submit the completed form, the judge will review the information you provide to determine if you can pay the filing fee. If the judge determines you can pay the filing fee or part of the filing fee, the judge will order you to do so. If the judge determines you cannot pay the filing fee, you will be allowed to proceed with your lawsuit without prepaying the filing fee. For a list of filing fees, please click here .
How do I serve my complaint on the defendant(s)?
Once you pay the filing fee, the Clerk of Court will provide you with instructions on how to serve the defendant(s). This includes providing each defendant with a copy of the complaint and either (1) a Summons or (2) both a Request to Waive Service of Summons and a Waiver of Service of Summons forms, both are found in our forms directory. If you were granted permission to proceed without prepaying the filing fee, the United States Marshals will serve the defendant.
Can the court appoint an attorney to represent me for free?
Unlike a criminal case, there is no right to counsel in a civil case. However, under certain circumstances, the judge may attempt to find an attorney who is willing to volunteer his or her time to represent a person in federal court. Because the court lacks funds to pay attorneys who agree to represent those who cannot afford to hire an attorney on their own, these attorneys work without being paid (referred to as “pro bono”).
Before the judge will consider trying to find an attorney to volunteer to represent someone in a civil action, the litigant must first attempt to find an attorney on his or her own. This involves contacting at least three attorneys to ask whether they would be willing to represent you on a pro bono basis.
If you are unable to find an attorney on your own, you may file a “Motion for the Appointment of Counsel.” In this motion, you must explain why you are unable to afford counsel. You must also provide details about your efforts to find counsel.
The judge will review the motion. If the judge finds that you lack the resources to hire an attorney and have made appropriate efforts to obtain counsel on your own, the judge will consider several factors, including the complexity of the case, to decide whether to try and find a volunteer attorney to represent you.
I filed a complaint and served the defendant, now what?
After the defendant is served with a summons and a copy of the complaint, the defendant generally must file an answer to the complaint. Once the defendant answers the complaint, the judge usually will schedule a conference with the parties. The judge may decide to have the conference over the phone or in the court. During this conference, the judge will discuss scheduling further proceedings in your case. The judge will set a deadline for the parties to make their initial disclosures, as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(a). The judge usually will also set deadlines for the parties to complete all discovery and to file dispositive motions.
During discovery, the parties exchange information about the case. This may include exchanging documents, presenting interrogatories (written questions), or conducting depositions. The discovery phase usually lasts a number of months.
At any point in the case, the parties may try to negotiate a settlement of their dispute.
Are there rules I have to follow, and where can I find them?
The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, often abbreviated Fed. R. Civ. P., are rules that control every civil case filed in every federal courts across the country. They can be found at the law library or on many websites including: www.law.cornell.edu/rules/frcp and www.uscourts.gov
The Local Rules, often abbreviated L.R., are rules that apply to every case filed in the Eastern District of Wisconsin. Copies of the Local Rules can be obtained at the Clerk of Court’s office or by clicking here. The Local Rules are divided into three sections: (1) General Rules that apply to all cases; (2) Civil Rules that apply only in civil cases; and (3) Criminal Rules that apply only in criminal cases.
Like everyone else, pro se litigants MUST comply with these rules. Failure to comply with these rules may have serious consequences. Depending on the circumstances, it is possible that you might lose your case if you do not comply with all of the rules.
What do all of these legal terms mean?
Courts and lawyers often use terms that have special meanings when used in the legal setting. Simple definitions of some of the most common terms can be found in the guide “Answers to Pro Se Litigants’ Common Questions,” which can be found here. Additional information can be found by consulting a legal dictionary or at various websites such as www.uscourts.gov/common/glossary.aspx
Where can I find legal decisions and legal resources?
Please refer to the Legal Resources page found here.
When will the judge rule on my motion? Can I get a status update?
If a motion is filed, the Clerk of Court’s office will mail you a copy of the judge’s decision once it is finalized and enter the decision on the docket of the case. You can call the Clerk of Court’s office to check on the status of your case. You may also request a copy of the docket for a fee.
The judge dismissed my lawsuit. How do I appeal?
You may appeal a decision to the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit by filing in the district court a notice of appeal within 30 days after the entry of judgment. See Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 3, 4. The judge may extend this deadline if you request an extension and show good cause or excusable neglect for not being able to meet the 30-day deadline. See Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(5)(A).
Under certain circumstances, you may ask the judge to alter or amend its judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) or ask for relief from judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b). Any motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) must be filed within 28 days of the entry of judgment. The judge cannot extend this deadline. See Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 6(b)(2). Any motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) must be filed within a reasonable time, generally no more than one year after the entry of the judgment. The judge cannot extend this deadline. See Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 6(b)(2).