Thanks to the Pennsylvania Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities for providing this information on how to file a Pro Se Lawsuit.
Pro Se form to download
Pro Se? Nothing to it!
By John Tassone
What is a Pro Se Complaint? This is, quite simply, a lawsuit that a person files without a lawyer. The ADA Pro Se must be filed in Federal District Court., because the ADA is a Federal law. To find out which US District Court you will be filing your complaint in, look in the phone book blue (or green) pages, under United States Government Offices, "U.S. Courts".
Why file a Pro Se complaint? As the chair of an advocacy group called the Disability Action Crew (DAC), I have lots of information to help others advocate for access. With every question I get asked about advocacy, it seems I often end up with more questions that go unanswered. It's like a coach trying to beat a team that makes all the rules as the game goes along. He's out there, he's trying to win, but every time he goes for the goal there's a different set of rules. Advocacy's like that‹we don't know the rule of winning access until we break them. And we look to authorities for the answers: the DOJ, the EEOC, the HRC, the DOT.
How about us? We are the real authority, because we live with the discrimination day in and day out. The Pro Se is our tool. Many businesses and other public accommodations are not making their places accessible. Their attorneys told them to ignore the ADA until someone makes an issue out of the lack of access.
I've spent a lot of time sending accessibility complaints to the DOJ for the "mediation process", which is supposed to be a faster way to get better compliance. No response. I waited and got no response. I'm still waiting for, at the very least, a letter confirming that they received the things, let alone tell me what action, if any, they would be taking. Nothing.
How does it work? I attended a meeting with a group of advocates from across Pennsylvania, and Steve Gold, the attorney who designed this Pro Se, told us about filing our own lawsuits. Once I learned how to use it, I was ready for action, I couldn't wait to do my first case. My success rate since I began to use the Pro Se form has been 100%: all public accommodations served with papers under the Pro Se method have made their places accessible.
The form needs to be filled out, and copies made. The number of copies will depend upon your Federal District Court, so call and talk to them about this. Depending on your income, you may be able to file your complaint free of charge, so ask about this as well. Here's one success story:
A fellow advocate member of DAC, our advocacy group, filed her Pro Se in Federal District Court, after waiting and waiting for DOJ to respond. She lives on a low fixed income, and was able to waive the filing fee. Within a week, she received her notification of receipt that her case is now pending in federal court. At the same time she received notification that the inaccessible business was being served the complaint by a federal marshal. Shortly after that, she received a letter from the attorney for the inaccessible business stating that they wanted to settle out of court. Of course!! We settled for full compliance with the ADA.
I highly recommend using the Pro Se. We use it only after we've attempted to deal with the business either through a letter, phone call, or face-to-face meeting, discussing our access issues, and the business still won't budge.
I still have a pile of 14 complaints sent to DOJ last year. I've heard absolutely nothing from DOJ. That's why we've taken advantage of the Pro Se, and we're finding it works.
When a federal marshal serves an inaccessible business with a summons to federal court, that inaccessible businesses starts to take you seriously!!
Pro Se Instructions
Don't let the Pro Se form scare you. It's easy! All you have to do is just put it in the computer and fill in the bold parts that are in parentheses. If you do not have a computer, then use the "blank" pro se. We have an example copy included for your convenience. Keep the example copy with you at your side as a guideline. Once you have the disk copy in your computer and the example copy in front of you, just follow these suggestions and you're on your way:
1. Fill in the [brackets] with your information. Remember, you are the plaintiff, and the business is the defendant.
2. Each Paragraph is numbered on the left hand side. When you get to paragraph 15, you'll see that it reads, "a failure to remove architectural barriers." This will be different if the barriers are against people who are deaf or hard of hearing. For example, the barrier may be a phone bank without a TTY.
3. Paragraph 16 may also be different, depending on what the barrier is. It's a good idea to attach photos of the barrier, as well as any letters of correspondence.
4. If you or your group made any effort to inform business owners in your area about the ADA, you might want to make a Paragraph 18 that will read like this: "On April 22, 1993, the Louisville CIL conducted a free seminar on the ADA, and sent out fliers to all downtown businesses, to educate them about the ADA. The business in question still refused to become accessible. If this is not relevant, just ignore it, and number paragraphs accordingly.
5. If you or your group did anything to inform that particular business owner of his violation, then you might want to make that paragraph 19. It might read like this, "During the summer of 1997, the Louisville CIL visited the business in question, and spoke to the owner. The owner could easily make his business accessible but has chosen not to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act."
6. If you have a paragraph 18 and 19, then you might want to add a paragraph 20 that might read something like this, "Other commercial facilities similar to the defendant's have made similar modifications, like what we ask here. Defendant could easily make his business accessible but has chosen not to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act." You might also want to add a 20a that reads, "to assist businesses with complying with the ADA, Congress has enacted a tax credit for small businesses, and a tax deduction available to all businesses."
7. Your next paragraph must read like this, "plaintiffs want to (eat, do business, use the phone, buy, etc.) in the defendant's (restaurant, store, etc.)" This is very important; it's the whole point of your lawsuit.
8. Don't forget to fill out the Pro Se Motion to Commence an Action Without Payment. Each court has a different standard of who can afford to pay, and who can't. People on SSI typically do not have to pay any fees. People who work may be asked to pay as much as $150. It's important to keep this in mind when your group is deciding who will be the plaintiff. The plaintiff should outline exactly why he thinks he should not have to pay fees. Look at the enclosed copy for an example of a person's form who did not have to pay fees.
You are now ready to take your completed form down to the federal district court that represents your area.
Filing your Pro Se lawsuit
1. If you don't know where your federal court is, look under "U.S. Government Offices ‹ U.S. Courts" in the blue or green pages of your phone book. When you find out which district court is yours, add it at the top of your pro se where it reads, "in the United States District Court for the [ ] district of [your state]." Don't worry yet about the Civil Action No. The clerk will give that to you at your district court office.
2. Most district courts require you to have an original copy, a copy for each defendant, and an extra. Ask your clerk if they require more copies, and don't forget to keep a copy for yourself.
3. When you go to the district court's office, follow the clerk's instruction. They tend to be very helpful, and will usually lead you through the rest of the process. The clerk will give you a civil cover sheet to fill out while you are there. That cover sheet will be attached to your Pro Se. The clerk will help you, if you need assistance.
4. If you make mistakes, don't panic. The clerk will tell you how to correct any mistakes, and justice will still be served.
Now, you're done with the Pro Se.
Next, the summons comes back to you in the mail, as well as instructions for how to deliver the summons.
Make sure you follow those instructions! At that point, you will be given so many days to serve the defendant with the court summons. In some districts, the plaintiff has the choice of either delivering the summons himself, a friend deliver it, or having a federal Marshal deliver it. It is most effective to have either a federal Marshal deliver the summons, or a really big guy in a suit. Whoever delivers the summons must make a note of who the summons is delivered to, what the date is, and what time it was delivered. Record this information on the appropriate form that is sent to you with the summons, and take it back to the district court.
Congratulations! You have just filed your first Pro Se complaint. Feel free to share your new knowledge with as many people as you can, including any materials in this packet. Nothing is copyrighted, and duplication is encouraged. If you need any further assistance, please call the Pa. Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities at (717) 238-0172 voice or (717) 238-3433 TTY.
These instructions written and tested in the field by Linda Riegel.