Resources for Pro Se Litigation in the US District Court for the District of Colorado
Over the past several years, the US District Court for the District of Colorado has developed and/or implemented multiple resources to improve access to the court by pro se litigants, as well as to improve the court’s management of pro se cases. This article is a comprehensive guide to those resources.
Two committees now address issues relating to pro se litigation: the Standing Committee on Pro Se Litigation (which I chair), and the Working Group on Pro Se Litigation.
Standing Committee on Pro Se Litigation
The Standing Committee on Pro Se Litigation handles general issues relating to pro se litigants and litigation and includes members who are external to the court.1 The committee’s mission is to oversee the Civil Pro Bono Program, report annually to the court on the status of this program, and promote access to the court by unrepresented parties. Since its formation, the committee has also approved forms for use by prisoner and non-prisoner pro se litigants and helped develop projects that assist the court with pro se litigation, such as the CBA Young Lawyers Division’s “FLAP” program.
My colleagues from the court who serve on the committee are Judge Daniel D. Domenico, Judge Scott T. Varholak, Legal Officer Edward Butler, and Pro Se Staff Attorney Nicole Salamander Irby. Committee members external to the court are Executive Director of Colorado Legal Services Jon Asher, attorney and CBA representative Fred Baumann, Professor Ann England of the University of Colorado School of Law, attorney and Faculty of Federal Advocates representative Daniel Graham, attorney and private law firm representative Nora Passamaneck, Professor Laura Rovner of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, and Deputy Attorney General Maritza Braswell (in a non-voting capacity representing the Colorado Attorney General’s Office).
Working Group on Pro Se Litigation
The Working Group on Pro Se Litigation comprises only internal court personnel and is chaired by Magistrate Judge Gordon P. Gallagher. The Working Group tackles general issues related to pro se litigation, such as filing upgrades for pro se prisoners, providing assistance with court forms, and developing court procedures for handling pro se cases. The other Working Group members are Judge Lewis T. Babcock, Magistrate Judge S. Kato Crews, Clerk of Court Jeffrey P. Colwell, Legal Officer Edward Butler, Pro Se staff attorneys Shawn Helgeson and Nicole Salamander Irby, Clerk’s Office Supervisor Andrea Garcia-Gallegos, and myself.
Pro Se Division of the US District Court, District of Colorado
The US District Court for the District of Colorado benefits from the assistance of a Pro Se Division staffed by attorneys who provide initial review of all civil cases filed by prisoners, all civil cases filed by non-prisoners who request to proceed in forma pauperis (i.e., without prepayment of the filing fee), all habeas corpus cases except death penalty cases or counseled federal immigration actions, and all requests to proceed in forma pauperis on appeal.2 In recent years, the Pro Se Division reviewed on average one-third of the civil cases filed in the district. The court’s Pro Se Division is supervised by Senior Judge Lewis T. Babcock and Magistrate Judge Gordon P. Gallagher.
Federal Pro Se Clinic
The Federal Pro Se Clinic (FPSC) opened in June 2018 to provide assistance to individuals who wish to file a civil case or have filed a civil case without a lawyer, or who have been named as a defendant in a civil case filed in federal court and intend to proceed without paid counsel. The clinic is run by the CBA and funded by biannual fees paid by attorneys who are admitted to the bar of the court. The FPSC is led by Project Attorney Leslie Kelly, who is assisted by Program Coordinator Jessica Harner. A small army of attorney volunteers helps handle the FPSC’s work by meeting with pro se litigants to offer guidance on drafting pleadings, the discovery process, and other questions relating to federal civil litigation. The clinic is currently dedicated to non-prisoner litigation and most often assists litigants with civil rights, employment, and personal injury matters.
The Federal Pro Se Clinic Advisory Committee meets several times a year to oversee clinic operations and assist with necessary local rule changes to support the clinic. The Advisory Committee is chaired by attorney Mark Schwane. Other members are CBA representative Kathleen Schoen, Colorado Lawyers Committee Executive Director Connie Talmage, Colorado Legal Services attorney Reenie Terjak, attorney Cheyenne Moore, attorney Ken Rossman, Legal Officer Edward Butler, and myself. To volunteer at the clinic, please email Leslie Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or Jessica Harner at email@example.com, or call the clinic at (303) 380-8786.
Civil Pro Bono Program
The court maintains a list of attorneys and law firms that are willing to accept federal civil cases on a pro bono basis, referred to as the Civil Pro Bono Panel.3 When a judicial officer enters an order “appointing” pro bono counsel for a pro se litigant, Legal Officer Edward Butler and paralegal Kelsey Montalban contact attorneys on the panel to ask them to consider undertaking pro bono representation in the case. The court’s Local Rules were recently amended to permit limited representation by attorneys in civil cases, including pro se matters.4
Panel attorneys who agree to undertake either full or limited representation receive malpractice insurance coverage and are eligible to receive reimbursement for costs through the Faculty of Federal Advocates.5 Funding for the cost reimbursement program comes from a small percentage of attorney admission fees. In addition, attorneys may enter into certain fee agreements with clients obtained through the Pro Bono Program.6 Although the number of cases where counsel has been “appointed” by the court regularly exceeds the number of available pro bono attorneys, every effort is made to find suitable pro bono representation in every eligible case. Applications to join the panel are available on the court’s website, as are other forms related to pro bono representation in the federal court.7
Roster of Private Professional Mediators
The Faculty of Federal Advocates has compiled a roster of attorneys who practice full or part-time and are available to serve as mediators in federal lawsuits.8 Several of these attorneys are also available to serve on a reduced fee or pro bono basis in pro se litigation.
Pro bono mediation services are also available for cases assigned through the Civil Pro Bono Program. Attorney mediation specialists have volunteered to provide these services on a pro bono basis. For more information on pro bono mediation for panel cases, contact Edward Butler at (303) 335-2043 or email COD_ProBonoPanel@cod.ucourts.gov.
The CBA Young Lawyers Division is developing a program whereby volunteer attorneys can enter limited appearances in federal court on behalf of pro se litigants and provide legal information, consultation services, and/or representation to them before, during, and immediately after scheduled appearances in court. Attorney Danaé Woody and Magistrate Judge S. Kato Crews have been instrumental in developing the Federal Limited Appearance Program (FLAP), which is slated for presentation to the court in the upcoming months. Please stay tuned for additional details regarding FLAP.
Resources on the Court’s Website
The court’s website offers a host of written resources for pro se litigation.
Guide to Civil Lawsuits for Unrepresented Parties
The Guide to Civil Lawsuits walks pro se litigants through many of the issues they encounter when trying to represent themselves in federal court and provides answers to frequently asked questions.9 The court is in the process of updating this guide with a “plain English” version, which will be posted on the website and available for use in mid-2020.
Pro Se Prisoner Handbook
The Pro Se Prisoner Handbook is a procedural guide for incarcerated individuals wishing to file a complaint in the US District Court for the District of Colorado under 42 USC § 1983/Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents 10; a habeas corpus action under 28 USC §§ 2254 or 2241; or a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct a sentence under 28 USC § 2255.11
Guide for Pro Bono Attorneys Representing Prisoners
As a service to attorneys who would like to assist pro se prisoners with civil rights lawsuits, the court is in the process of updating this comprehensive guide to the legal issues most frequently encountered in such cases, along with applicable case law.12 The guide will be available online in mid-2020.
The court’s website provides a variety of forms and instructions for use by pro se litigants, whether prisoner or non-prisoner.13 The forms available in pro se cases include a complaint form, an employment discrimination complaint form, and a sample motion for appointment of counsel. Forms available in prisoner cases include an application for writ of habeas corpus, a complaint in a section 1983 case, and a motion for appointment of pro bono counsel.
Limited Representation Guide
The court’s website also includes an attorney instruction packet for limited representation in the federal court, along with answers to frequently asked questions about limited representation.14
As the country grows, the courts become busier. Pro se litigation has increased steadily in both state and federal courts in the 21st century. Increasing judicial personnel to address busy dockets in the federal courts is largely the province of Congress. In the US District Court for the District of Colorado, the number of authorized Article III judges has not changed since 1984, despite Colorado’s exponential population growth since that time.15 Growing dockets and limited judicial resources mean more work per judge; more work per judge means more time from filing to resolution of federal court lawsuits. Attorney assistance with pro se litigation not only enhances the court’s ability to address this ever-increasing area of the docket, but also enhances the court’s ability to address fully lawyered cases. Most important, attorney assistance with pro se litigation improves access to justice, a cornerstone of our American constitutional system. The court remains grateful for the efforts of the attorneys who volunteer at the FPSC, serve on the Pro Bono Panel, undertake limited or general representation of a pro se litigant, and otherwise provide invaluable help in improving access to justice for all.
1. See D.C.COLO.LAttyR 15.
2. This review is required by D.C.COLO.LCivR 8.1, 28 USC § 1915, 28 USC § 1915A, and 42 USC § 1997e.
3. See D.C.COLO.LAttyR 15.
4. See D.C.COLO.LAttyR 2(b)(1), 5(a) and (b).
5. See D.C.COLO.LAttyR 15(i).
6. D.C.COLO.LAttyR 15(h).
8. The attorney roster is available at www.dcolomediators.org..
10. Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971).
15. See Gallagher and Lyons, “A Call for Additional Federal Judges,” The Docket (Dec. 28, 2015).