Filing your suit is only the beginning. You must be prepared to do a lot of work after you file the complaint to achieve your goal. Throughout the suit, it will be your responsibility to keep your case moving forward, or nothing will happen. This chapter will explain what may happen after you file the complaint and how to keep your case moving.
Once you file (by sending the Court your complaint and summons), the court clerk will give you a civil action number. You need to write this number in the case caption of all documents you file related to your case.
Next you will have to deal with a series of pretrial procedures. The PLRA creates several roadblocks for prisoners. You will have to deal with the possibility of a waiver of reply and screening by the district court. Both of these issues are described in Section B of this chapter.
Once you make it through these two hurdles, a defendant has a certain period of time after he or she is served with your complaint, to submit a motion to dismiss, a motion for a more definite statement (asking that you clarify some part of your complaint), a motion for an extension of deadline, or an answer. The amount of time depends on what process you used to serve your complaint, and is explained in Rule 12 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Each defendant must eventually submit an answer, unless the judge dismisses your complaint as to that defendant. The answer admits or denies each fact you state. It can also include affirmative defenses.
When your case progresses to discovery, each side can get more information from the other through interrogatories, depositions, and other forms of pre-trial discovery. Each side can submit additional declarations from people who have relevant information. Finally, each side can file motions for summary judgment which ask the judge to decide the case, or some part of the case, in its favor without a trial.
If the case goes to trial, you and your witnesses and defendants and their witnesses will testify in court, and will be cross-examined. Both sides may submit exhibits. If you request money damages, you can have that issue decided by a jury.
Whichever side loses in the district court after trial or summary judgment has a legal right to appeal to a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court may affirm (agree with) or reverse (disagree with) the district court’s decision. It may also remand, which orders the district court to hold a new trial or to take another look at a certain issue. The side which loses on appeal can ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, by filing a “petition for writ of certiorari.” The Supreme Court does not have to consider the case, however, and it will not unless it thinks that the case raises a very important legal issue.
This chapter of the Handbook will help you handle the key parts of pretrial procedure: the motion to dismiss; the motion for summary judgment; and pretrial discovery. It will also explain what to do if the court dismisses your complaint or grants the defendants summary judgment against you.
Unfortunately, a discussion of trial is beyond the scope of this handbook, and we cannot describe all pretrial procedures in detail or provide much in the way of strategy and tactics. But you can get a basic understanding of some of the procedures by reading some of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and this Handbook. Also, if your case goes to trial, the judge might appoint a lawyer to assist you.
Remember that much of the success of your suit depends on your initiative. If you don’t keep pushing, your suit can stall at any number of points. For example, if the defendants haven’t submitted an answer, a motion, or some other legal paper after the time limits set by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, submit a Declaration for Entry of Default. If the court accepts your Declaration, you will receive a Notice of Entry of Default from the court. You then submit a Motion for Judgment by Default. Forms and more information about these procedures are in Appendix D. You probably can’t win a judgment this way, but you can keep the case moving.
Many prisoner complaints are given to “Magistrate Judges.” A Magistrate Judge is a judicial officer who is like a Federal Judge. Their powers are limited in comparison to a District Court Judge, but they do much of the work in many prison cases.
Your District Court Judge can tell the Magistrate to decide certain things in your case, like a discovery issue, scheduling, or requests for extensions. If you don’t like what the Magistrate says, you can write “objections” to the action within ten days and file them at the District Court. However, for decisions like these, it is very hard to get a Magistrate’s decision changed.
A District Court Judge can also ask the Magistrate to do important things in your case, like hold a hearing or “propose findings.” You can also file objections to these types of actions. You are more likely to get meaningful review by a District Court Judge on an issue of importance. Whether or not you file objections, the District Court Judge will read what the Magistrate has written, and then adopt, reject, or modify the Magistrate’s findings.
The prison officials may just submit an answer and then do nothing. If this happens, you should move ahead with discovery (Part E of this chapter). This will make them realize you are serious about pushing forward your case, and may get things moving. If your case stalls after discovery, you can move for summary judgment (Part F of this Chapter) or ask the court to set a date for a trial.
Keep trying at every point to get the court to appoint a lawyer for you. If you don’t have a lawyer, don’t be afraid to keep moving forward pro se, which means “on your own behalf.” You can also try writing the court clerk and prisoners’ rights groups when you don’t know what to do next. The worst thing is to let your suit die.