The sad truth of the matter is that prisoners file thousands of Section 1983 cases every year, and the vast majority of these are dismissed at one of the three stages described in sections B, C, & F of this chapter. This may happen to you even if you have a valid claim and a good argument. It may happen even if you work very hard on your papers, and follow every suggestion in this Handbook perfectly. The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to give up right away. You can choose to keep fighting. You have already learned how to file an amended complaint in Section C and the next few pages tell what else you can do if your case is dismissed or the court grants summary judgment in favor of the defendants.
1. Motion to Alter or Amend the Judgment
Your first option is to file a Motion to Alter or Amend the Judgment under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 59(e). This motion must be filed within ten days after entry of judgment, so you will have to move quickly. Include a Memorandum of Law that cites the cases from your circuit.
You can make this kind of motion if the court dismisses your complaint, denies you leave to amend, or grants summary judgment to the defendants.
2. How to Appeal the Decision of the District Court
If you lose your motion to alter the judgment, or if you decide not to make one, you can appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for your district. You begin your appeal by filing a Notice of Appeal with the clerk of the U.S. District Court whose decision you want to appeal. Follow the form in Appendix D If you filed a Motion to Alter under Rule 59(e), file your Notice of Appeal within 30 days after the court denies your Motion to Alter. Otherwise file your notice within 30 days after the order or judgment was entered by the district court judge.
The appeals process is governed by the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure. These rules are supposed to be in your prison library, included as part of Title 28 of the United States Code (U.S.C.). There is an annotated version of the U.S.C. called the United States Code Annotated (U.S.C.A.) which gives summaries of important court decisions which interpret the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure. The U.S.C. will only have the text of the Federal Rules while the U.S.C.A. will give some explanation and cases and is probably more helpful to you. Chapter Seven explains how to use the U.S.C.A. and other law books. Some of the books listed in Appendix J give more information on the appeals process.
If you sued in forma pauperis, you can appeal in forma pauperis, unless the district court finds that your appeal is not taken “in good faith.” If the district court decides this, you have to send to the Appeals Court in forma pauperis papers like those you sent to the district court, except that you should explain the basis of your appeal. Submit these papers within 30 days after you are notified that the district court ruled that your appeal was not in good faith.
Soon after you receive a notice that your appeal has been transferred to the Court of Appeals, submit another Motion for Appointment of Counsel. Use the form in Chapter Four, Section C, Part 3, for requesting counsel but change the name of the court and state the basis of your appeal. If you have to submit new in forma pauperis papers, send them together with the motion for counsel.
Along with your Motion for Appointment of Counsel, submit a Memorandum of Law which presents all your arguments for why the appeals court should reverse the decision of the district court, for example, because the district court got the law wrong. If the appeals court thinks your appeal has merit, it usually will appoint a lawyer for you. Otherwise you may get a summary dismissal of your appeal.