Giving Civil Pro Se Litigants a Fighting Chance in Federal Court
Late in 2016 NYLAG opened a legal clinic for pro se litigants in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) – one of a handful of federal district courts across the country seeking to make legal assistance available to the large number of civil litigants who come to federal court without an attorney by authorizing and funding an on-site legal clinic.
Now in its second year, the SDNY Legal Clinic for Pro Se Litigants has successfully assisted hundreds of litigants in a range of cases including employment discrimination, civil rights, intellectual property and more. In many instances, cases that do not belong in the SDNY are diverted to another more appropriate venue, such as Family Court or Housing Court – saving litigants time and anxiety and sparing the court’s limited resources.
“In little more than a year the clinic has built confidence in the justice system for many pro se litigants. Our legal staff and volunteers have been able to make the process less confusing for clinic visitors and guide them in the right direction, which improves their chances for satisfactory outcomes,” said Robyn Tarnofsky, the director of the clinic.
From October 2016 through September 2017 clinic staff members assisted 874 individuals in a variety of ways. In most cases, staff and volunteers provide advice and counsel, including providing referrals to other services or pro bono attorneys. In some cases, clinic staff members provide more extensive assistance, such as helping litigants draft court filings.
While most litigants are plaintiffs, about ten percent are defendants. The legal challenges facing the clinic’s visitors are varied and diverse: for example, clinic visitors have included an immigrant woman sued by a hospital for payment of her late husband’s medical bills and threatened with having her wages garnished; a woman who sued the police after her home was broken into by police with drawn weapons while her toddler granddaughter was playing on the floor; and a woman who sued her employer for sex discrimination and through mediation received a five-figure settlement.
In addition to Tarnofsky, NYLAG’s Pro Se Clinic is staffed by one full-time attorney and one paralegal and supported by student interns and law graduates who volunteer there on a regular basis. They are joined by additional private attorneys who cycle in and out of the program.
The SDNY, which provides the funding for the clinic, recently approved the introduction of a mediation project, which in a short period of time has proved to be highly effective. Clinic staff members and volunteers are now permitted to represent pro se litigants in connection with settlements. Litigants get an impartial view of the strengths and weaknesses of their cases, resulting in earlier resolutions. Over half of the litigants who were represented by clinic staff members or volunteers settled their cases.
The clinic has also introduced a unique program that solicits junior lawyers at firms to take or defend depositions for pro se litigants on a pro bono basis. As a former litigator in private practice Tarnofsky recognized that in high stakes litigation, clients often want experienced lawyers handling depositions. This program has been welcomed by a number of large New York City law firms an opportunity to train the next generation of lawyers. For pro se litigants it means not having to face a tough deposition on their own, and having a far better chance to tell their stories and make the best case or mount the best defense possible.
“Federal cases are difficult for litigants, who are anxious to begin with and understandably confused by what is a complicated legal process. Even when their cases are potentially meritorious, without legal advice it is very easy for litigants to make mistakes that compromise their cases,” said Tarnofsky. “Thanks to the support of the SDNY, the NYLAG Pro Se Clinic is off to a great start.”
The SDNY encompasses the counties of New York, Bronx, Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Orange, Dutchess, and Sullivan. The Court hears cases in Manhattan and White Plains. The Pro Se Clinic operates five days a week in Manhattan, and once a week in White Plains.