Representing Yourself in Federal Court (Pro Se)
Frequently Asked Questions
Review and click on questions to find answers to questions you may have regarding representing yourself in court.
What does it mean to appear pro se?
"Pro se"- Latin for self or "in one’s own behalf." Although the majority of individuals, also known as "litigants" or "parties", appearing before this court, are represented by attorneys, a small percentage appears pro se. Litigants or parties representing themselves in court without the assistance of an attorney are known as pro se litigants.
The Pro Se Intake Unit is a department within the Clerk’s Office and has two primary functions:
All papers submitted by pro se litigants must be submitted to the Pro Se Intake Unit. All questions from pro se litigants regarding the Court’s procedures must be directed to the Pro Se Intake Unit.
No appointment is needed to speak to a staff member. The Pro Se Intake Unit at 500 Pearl Street is open for business from 8:30am - 5:00pm, Monday - Friday (except federal and court holidays). Litigants may contact the Office by telephone or in person anytime during the day. Litigants are advised, however, that the Court closes promptly at 5:00pm and all questions should be directed to the Office well before that time. Please do not request to speak to a specific staff member. The staff has other duties and responsibilities which must be addressed when they are not on duty to assist the public. Clerks Office staff at the Charles L. Brieant, Jr. Federal Building and Courthouse in White Plains can also answer many of your questions
The Pro Se Intake Unit has been designated by the judges of the Court to receive all submissions from pro se litigants. The staff of the Pro Se Intake Unit will ensure that any papers submitted by pro se litigants comply with the formal requirements of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Local Rules of the Southern District, and the Individual Practice Rules of the Judges.
The Court requires that all papers from pro se litigants be submitted to the Pro Se Intake Unit. Litigants are encouraged to follow this rule to ensure the prompt processing of their papers. Any papers submitted in White Plains will be forwarded to the Pro Se Intake Unit.My corporation has been sued, can I file papers in Court on behalf of the corporation?
No. Only individuals can appear pro se In other words, a person who is not an attorney may appear pro se but may not represent a corporation, even if the person is the sole owner of the corporation. The corporation must be represented by a lawyer.Why can't the lawyers in the Pro Se Intake Unit represent me?
The Staff Attorneys in the Pro Se Intake Unit are court employees and as such are prohibited by law from representing litigants, giving legal advice to litigants or doing legal research on behalf of litigants. The Staff Attorneys, like all employees of the Court, must remain neutral in order to preserve the integrity and independence of the Court.Why can't the Office of Pro Se Litigation give legal advice?
Legal advice should be given only by lawyers to their clients. The staff of the Pro Se Intake Unit consists of court employees and are prohibited by law from giving legal advice.How do I sue someone in federal court?
A lawsuit is commenced by the filing of a complaint. The Southern District of New York requires a party to submit an original and two exact copies of the complaint. Instructions for starting a new action, as well as helpful forms, may be found in Forms, Instructions & Manuals.How do I bring criminal charges against someone?
Only government prosecutors have the authority to bring criminal charges against someone. If you believe you have been the victim of a crime or if you have knowledge of a crime that has been committed, you should contact the appropriate law enforcement official. If you believe the crime is a violation of federal law, you should contact the United States Attorneys Office for the district in which the crime is alleged to have occurred. If you believe the crime is a violation of state law, you should contact the police or the District Attorney’s Office for the county in which the crime is alleged to have occurred.What kind of cases belong in federal court (subject matter jurisdiction)?
Federal Court is a court of limited jurisdiction. Whereas all sorts of cases may be filed in state court, only two types of cases may be filed in federal court: (1) federal questions cases; and (2) cases between citizens of different states known as “diversity” cases. A more detailed explanation of these two types of case may be found in Forms, Instructions & Manuals.Why can't the Office of Pro Se Litigation tell me if my case belongs in federal court?
The decision of whether a case does or does not belong in federal court is one that must be made by a judge. The Court’s subject matter jurisdiction is the authority of the Court to hear a particular case and is defined by statute. Only the judges of the Court can determine whether this Court has subject matter jurisdiction over the cases before them.Is the Southern District of New York the right federal court for my case (venue)?
There are four districts in the State of New York: Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western. The Southern District of New York covers the counties of New York (Manhattan), Bronx, Westchester, Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, and Sullivan. Federal law requires that certain actions be filed in certain districts. A more detailed explanation of venue may be found in Forms, Instructions & Manuals.How long do I have to file my complaint (statute of limitations)?
The time limit a person has to file a lawsuit is determined either by the specific federal law that is at issue or the types of claims raised in the lawsuit. This information is legal advice and the Pro Se Intake Unit cannot tell you how long you may have to file a lawsuit. In order to find out how long you may have to file a case, you must do legal research. Many federal laws specifically state the statute of limitations period. Generally, if the federal law at issue does not include a statute of limitations, you must look to the statute of limitations period listed in state law for the most similar type of claim.My papers are due today, but I can't get to the courthouse until after 5:00pm, what can I do?
The Courthouse in Manhattan is open 24 hours a day. If you cannot submit your papers during the Court’s normal business hours, you may place them in the District Court’s Night Deposit Box located near Security in the lobby of the Courthouse. You must have the papers date and time stamped at the machine near Security. So long as the papers are stamped on or before 11:59pm, they will be deemed submitted on that date. If the papers are stamped at 12:00am (midnight) or later, they will be deemed submitted the next day.How do I file a complaint?
Complaints, as well as all other papers submitted by pro se litigants must be submitted to the Pro Se Intake Unit. The complaint must include a caption, a statement of facts, the name and address of the litigant and the litigant’s signature. A complaint with an original signature, as well as two copies of the complaint and either the proper filling fee or an application to waive the filing fee must be submitted to the Pro Se Intake Unit. More details regarding this process, may be found on the "How to Start a New Lawsuit without an Attorney" page.How many copies of the complaint do I need?
Three identical copies of the complaint (including copies of any exhibits attached to the complaint) must be submitted to the Pro Se Intake Unit. One of the copies must contain an original signature of the plaintiff.I don't have a computer or a typewriter, can I write my papers in long-hand?
Yes, so long as they are legible and on 8-1/2’’ x 11’’ paper, papers may be handwritten.Can I file my papers electronically?
Pro se litigants may not file electronically without the judge’s prior approval. If you would like to electronically file your papers, you must make a written application to the judge and include information regarding your ability to use a computer and what computer access you have.Can I speak to the judge about my case?
Unless appearing in Court before the judge, all communication to the judge must be done in writing. You may consult your judge’s Individual Practice for more information on how to communicate with Chambers.Will the judge answer my letter?
Generally, the Court will respond to procedural requests, such as extensions of time, that are made in the form of a letter. However, the decision to respond or not to respond to a letter is up to the judge.Will my letters be filed and placed in the Court’s official file?
Generally, letters are not filed or placed in the court file. It is the judge’s decision whether or not to have the letter made part of the Court’s official file.Will the judge accept faxes? Will the Pro Se Intake Unit?
Most judges do not accept faxes, but you should consult your judge’s Individual Practice for more information on how to communicate with Chambers. The Pro Se Intake Unit does not accept faxes.What is a docket number?
The docket number is the court’s case number or tracking number. Once a docket number is assigned to a case, it must appear on all papers submitted to the Court. Typically, a docket number is made up of a two-digit number (to signify the year), followed by the case type (either Civ. for civil cases or Cr. for criminal cases), followed by a four- or five- digit case number and followed by the judge’s initials in parentheses. Thus, 01 Civ. 2345 (LAP) is the docket number for the 2,345th civil case filed in the year 2001 and assigned to the Honorable Loretta A. Preska.How long does it take for a case to get a docket number?
If you submit your complaint and pay the proper filing fee in person, you will get a docket number assigned to your case immediately after you pay the fee. If you ask the Court to waive the filing fee by submitting a completed application to proceed in forma pauperis, your papers must be processed and reviewed by the Court before a docket number is assigned to your case. This may take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, depending upon how many cases are submitted to the Court at any given time. Typically, cases are processed and reviewed in the order in which they are received by the Court.Why is my case "undergoing judicial review" and what does that mean?
If a pro se litigant asks the Court to waive the filing fee by submitting an application to proceed in forma pauperis, the Court is required by statute and caselaw to first determine if the case is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim for relief, or names defendants who are immune from suit. In addition, the Court is required in all cases, including those where the litigant has paid the filing fee, to review the facts and claims to determine if the Court has subject matter jurisdiction over the action. A case that is undergoing judicial review, is one in which the Court is reviewing these issues. This process can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, depending upon how many cases are submitted to the Court at any given time. Typically, cases are reviewed in the order in which they are received by the Court.How long will it take to go to trial?
Very few civil cases in federal court actually go to trial. Most cases, whether they are proceeding pro se or with an attorney, are resolved either by a settlement or a judge’s order when one party makes a motion. For those that are not resolved, a trial may not be held until one or more years after the case is filed.Who can serve my summons and complaint?
Anyone over the age of 18 years who is not a party to the lawsuit can serve the summons and complaint. Professional process servers, typically listed in the telephone book, may be hired to serve the summons and complaint. Fees and costs vary with each server. A cost-savings alternative is to have a trusted family member or friend who is over 18 years old serve your summons and complaint. If you do not use a professional process server, you should carefully read Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to determine the method by which service must be made. Rule 4 also permits service to be made under New York Law. If your application to waive the filing fee was granted and you have in forma pauperis status, you also have the option of having the United States Marshal Service serve your summons and complaint free of charge. Please note that even if you have been granted in forma pauperis status, you need not use the Marshal Service for serving your summons and complaint. If is frequently quicker to arrange for the service on your own.Why can't the United States Marshal Service serve a John Doe defendant?
The United States Marshal Service in the Southern District of New York will serve a defendant who is named in the caption of the lawsuit at the address provided by the plaintiff. The Marshals do not perform any investigation as to the identity or location of a defendant. Therefore, the Marshals cannot serve a defendant who is identified as "John Doe". The defendant must have an actual name.What do I do if I lose or have served the original summons?
Copies of the summons and complaint must be served on the defendants. After service of all defendants is complete, the original summons (which has the Court’s raised seal stamped on it) must be filed with the Pro Se Intake Unit along with proof that the defendants have been served. If you have lost or have mistakenly served the original summons, your server must complete an Affirmation of Service for each defendant served and attach them to a "Face Sheet", provided by the Pro Se Intake Unit.I do not speak English, what do I do?
The federal courts do not have the resources to provide free interpreters for litigants in civil cases. To conduct business at the Court, you should have a trusted family member or friend assist you by interpreting for you. If you are scheduled to appear before the Judge, you should write a letter to the judge beforehand to ask permission to bring an interpreter with you. At your first opportunity at the proceeding before the Judge, you should introduce your interpreter by name, and relationship to you, so that the Court as well as your defendants will understand who is standing next to you in the courtroom.I am hearing-disabled, will the Court provide an American Sign Language (ASL) signer for me?
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Court will provide a ASL signer for court proceedings free of charge to those who request it. You should contact the Court Interpreters Unit for more information about this service. Remember to give the Interpreters Unit enough notice so that they can arrange for someone to be present on the date requested.What is a Magistrate Judge and why has my case been referred to one?
All civil cases in the Southern District of New York are assigned to one United States District Judge and one United States Magistrate Judge. A District Judge may refer the case to the Magistrate Judge to handle during different parts of the litigation. For instance, a District Judge may refer the case to the Magistrate Judge to handle all pretrial issues relating to discovery. In addition, the parties may consent to have the entire case handled by the magistrate judge. In such cases, the district judge will take no part in the case.What is a Report and Recommendation?
Sometimes, a district judge will refer the case to the Magistrate Judge for "dispositive motions," which means motions such as motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment. The Magistrate Judge will review the motion and issue a Report and Recommendation to the District Judge to advise the District Judge what should happen with the motion. The parties then have the opportunity to oppose in writing the U.S. Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation. After the district judge considers the parties’ opposition papers and the U.S. Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation, the district judge will issue a decision. This decision is the final decision on the matter at the district court. A party who disagrees with the district judge’s decision may appeal the decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.Why has my case been reassigned to another judge?
There are many reasons why a case is reassigned to new judge - most of which involve the internal administration of the Court. For instance, when a judge passes away, retires, or leaves the bench, the cases assigned to that judge must be reassigned to the other Southern District of New York judges. In addition, when a new judge joins the bench, cases must be reassigned to the new judge. Furthermore, as part of the Court’s general administrative functions, cases are reassigned to different judges to equalize the caseload in the Court.