“How to File a Federal Lawsuit without an Attorney”

Question: Hi, Alan. I filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) against my employer because I was being bullied by my boss, along with being treated differently from other co-workers in my department on several levels. 

I received from the EEOC a “Right to Sue Letter” a month and a half ago, and my time is running out to file my Federal discrimination lawsuit. However, no attorney around these parts will take the case because I was not fired and I think they do not want to go up against my employer because they are well known around these parts. 

What can I do next?

Brenda
Rantoul, Illinois

Answer: Dear Brenda: Our society helps those in your circumstances to get your “day in Court” in several ways:    

1. Your best bet would be to contact the “Pro Se Law Clerk” for the Federal District Court nearest you. When the EEOC issues a “Right to Sue Letter” you then have ninety (90) days in which to file your lawsuit in your local Federal District Court. Each of the Federal Districts Courts has at least one “Pro Se” Law Clerk to assist individuals, like you, who do not have attorneys representing them. “Pro Se” is a Latin phrase that means “For Oneself” and a Pro Se Law Clerk’s sole job is to assist individuals in your circumstances in filing and maintaining a lawsuit by yourself. 

The staff of the Pro Se Law Clerk in your Federal District Court can help you by answering questions about forms, deadlines and procedures, but they are prohibited from giving you actual legal advice. Most have a ready supply of forms for your use to fill in, or model your Court materials from, as well as written guides to filing your case without an attorney. 

The Pro Se Law Clerk’s office cannot, however, (a) recommend a legal course of action, (b) predict how a Judge or Court will decide any issue, (c) interpret the meaning of a Judicial Order, or (d) interpret the law, legal doctrines, or cases for you. 

To contact the Pro Se Law Clerk for the Northern District of Illinois, which is your Federal District, you can call (312) 435-5691. 

2. Additionally, Law School “Student Law Clinics” often provide supervised law students to assist those without attorneys in matters such as yours. Many law schools have “Law Clinics” which are comprised of law students, acting under the supervision of clinical teachers, Law Professors and experienced attorneys. Law Clinics commonly assist those without attorneys deal with either the Court system or government agencies while giving students practical training intended to help them develop effective advocacy skills.    

In your area, The University of Chicago Law School is home to many student legal clinics, including one that might just be best for you: the “Employment Discrimination Project.” To contact them at the University of Chicago Law School, go to www.law.uchicago.edu/clinics/Mandel/employment or dial (773) 702-9494.   

3. A third approach would be to try to obtain an attorney’s guidance and assistance – even if it is not representation – by means of a Bar Association’s “Pro Bono” assistance programs. Many states and local bar associations suggest – and some even require – that their attorney-members engage in what is called “pro bono public” legal efforts. “Pro bono publico” (or “pro bono” for short) means “for the public good.” You might try to locate an attorney who is interested in your case, or the issues you raise, who will either take on your case, or act as a legal advisor to coach and mentor you through the federal lawsuit process. 

Though most attorneys are quite busy in their own law practices, (a) younger lawyers seeking experience, (b) older lawyers who are retired or semi-retired, and (c) many other lawyers who are seeking experience in a new area of law, may be willing to assist you without charge, or for a reduced charge. 

I would suggest you consider this way of moving forward, and contacting the Illinois State Bar Association at (217) 525-1760, or visit their “LawyerFinder” website at www.illinoislawyerfinder.com

4. While I am sure representing yourself sure sounds difficult, intimidating and complex, the Federal Courts are really quite patient, accommodating, and understanding with people who cannot locate or cannot afford attorneys, and so represent themselves in Court. I must admit that I am almost always quite impressed at how kind, helpful and compassionate most Federal Court personnel – and most especially Federal Judges – are to people in your circumstances. With lawyers, while always polite and gracious, Court personnel can be a bit “unforgiving,” but with non-lawyers they really are quite wonderful. I have seen just super-human patience and compassion shown to those who have the courage and conviction to represent themselves in Court – which is their right to do. I think representing yourself in Federal Court might be a daunting challenge, it might, too, be a wonderful and inspiring experience for you. 

And what an advantage you have over attorneys: you cannot be disbarred! (Just joking.) 

5. No matter what you do, Brenda, you cannot miss your deadline for filing your lawsuit – there will be no “second chance” given to you. One thing I do want to share with you, Brenda, is that your deadline for filing your Federal Court Complaint (what we lawyers call the “Statute of Limitations”) is not flexible, but entirely strict and unforgiving. Read the instructions carefully on your “Right to Sue Letter” issued to you by the U.S. EEOC, because it sets forth your Statute of Limitations for filing your Federal Court Complaint. Even if it is not perfect, complete or exactly what you’d like it to say, I do recommend you do not permit yourself to miss that deadline, because to do so is, what in law we call “fatal to your claim.” After filing, within a reasonable period of time you will be able to file an Amended Complaint, but only if you met your deadline with your initial Complaint. 

Brenda, I admire and respect you for standing up for yourself, and persevering. The world surely needs more people like you!! I hope this answer has been helpful to you.      

 My best to you,
Al Sklover

P.S.: If you would like to obtain a list of five or more experienced, “employee-side” employment attorneys in the Chicago area, just [click here].

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