IN RESPONSE TO PRO SE
By: Laura J. Young
You receive a handwritten Complaint. You know it is a Complaint since it includes a case number and the semblance of a caption. However, the remainder of the document rapidly devolves into a series of rambling facts that have no relevance to any recognizable cause of action or even to each other. Incorporated within the body may be references to inapplicable constitutional provisions; well-publicized Acts of Congress; allegations of numerous and wide-spread conspiracies; and a prayer of relief for an extravagant and inexplicable sum of money. Or an apology. Or a trip to Hawaii.
Your next move is tricky. You have a client on behalf of whom you must zealously advocate. You also have a client who, understandably, does not want to sink tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills into a cause of action that makes no sense and has no merit. You are before a judge that you do not want to annoy. Finally, you are professionally adverse to a human being. Regardless of the evidence, this individual truly believes that he or she has been seriously wronged and deserves retribution.
Defending a complex civil case against a pro se plaintiff can feel like playing chess against a person who has never been told how the pieces are allowed to move. The lawyerless litigant may know their desired resolution to their grievances, but in trying to capture the opposing king, every move results in frustration, opposition, and another opportunity to move their piece in what must feel like ill-defined and whimsical rules announced by a capricious arbiter. I can empathize: It’s the way I feel trying to watch a football game.
This discrepancy in the playing field has not gone unnoticed by the Court: “An underlying assumption of the adversarial system is that both parties will have roughly equal resources. This assumption is destroyed when only one side is represented.” Merritt v. Faulkner, 697 F.2d 761,764 (footnote 3) (7th Circuit, 1983).
The truth is that, regardless of the differences in training, talent, and formal education, when an individual elects to proceed in complex litigation with no counsel, the pro se party is held to the same standard as members of the bar. In making this argument, the following citations may be useful to incorporate into your legal argument:
“Pro se litigants are presumed to have full knowledge of applicable court rules and procedures, including, procedural deadlines with respect to filing motions.” Steinbrecher v. Steinbrecher, 197 Ill.2d 514; 759 N.E.2d 509 (2001)(Court fails to excuse a pro se litigant’s procedural failure to renew a motion to stay in a property partition suit between siblings); Fiallo v. Lee, 356 Ill.App.3d 649,657; 826 N.E.2d 936, 942 (1st Dist. 2005)(Statement made by court in response to a petitioner-parent’s attempt to modify a child support order when the petition was filed one year too late and she failed to provide evidence of due diligence.)
In response to complaints of defendants in a case involving trade secrets and deceptive acts that his pro se status, depleted financial status, and unfamiliarity with the legal process have put him at a disadvantage, the First District specifically found: “Although [Defendants] have the right to appear as pro se appellants, they are held to the same rules as any other litigant represented by counsel . . . and despite their recurrent pleas, their pro se standing does not compel this court to apply a more lenient standard.” Multiut Corp. v. Draiman, 359 Ill.App.3d 527, 534; 834 N.E.2d 43, 48 (1st Dist. 2005)(internal citations omitted).
Finally, in a recently decided medical malpractice case in which the plaintiff represented himself and wanted to act as his own retained consultant to opine on the performance of foot surgery by a podiatrist (the plaintiff had no medical training), the court found: “A pro se litigant such as plaintiff here is not entitled to more lenient treatment than attorneys. In Illinois, parties choosing to represent themselves without a lawyer must comply with the same rules and are held to the same standards as licensed attorneys.” Holzrichter v. Yorath, 2013 IL App (1st) 110287, P78; 987 N.E.2d 1, 16 (1st Dist. 2013). “Illinois courts have strictly adhered to this principle, noting a ‘pro se’ litigant must comply with the rules of procedure required of attorneys, and a court will not apply a more lenient standard to pro se litigants.'” Id.
While you want to be professional, courteous, and kind, this case law makes it possible to support your argument (and instinct) with relevant authority: Pro Se litigants are not entitled to preference to compensate for their lack of formal, legal education.