Appeals Court Strikes a Blow for Unrepresented Litigants

A federalappeals court recentlystruck a blow for theunrepresented litigant, who often isill-equipped to understand and overcomeprocedural hurdles that effectively block access to federal courts.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appealsfor the Seventh Circuit, which is based in Chicago, reinstated a case that was dismissed by a district judge becausethe handwritten complaint filed by the plaintiff, who was representing himself,contained little more than conclusory legal jargon.Moreover, the judge said, the plaintiffchecked a variety of boxes with conclusory statements such as that the Defendant failed to reasonably accommodate the plaintiffs disabilities.

The plaintiff, John Tate, was a driver traineein 2014forSCR Medical Transportation, which provides non-emergency transportation services for disabled persons and veterans. His complaintstates:The defendant was aware of my disability. During my employment, I was subjected to sexual harassment. I complained to no avail. Tatealleges he was fired in retaliation for his complaint. He alleges discrimination on the basis of disability, sexual harassment and retaliation.

The appeals court saidTate filled out a complaint form supplied by the court thatdoes not require, or indeed permit, extensive factual detail, for it provides only six lines for listing the facts supporting the plaintiffs claim of discrimination.’ Also, the appeals court said, the judge made a serious mistake by dismissingTates lawsuit prior to the expiration of a 21-day period during which a plaintiff may file an amended complaint without the courts approval.

The panels decision, written by noted jurist Richard Posner, states thatthe lower court judge should have told the plaintiff what is required to allege disabilitydiscrimination.

Rather than dismissing the case, the judge should havehelped the pro secomplainant correct the procedural defect in the complaint.

The panel said Tate had no obligation to be morespecific with respect to his claim of sexual harassment or retaliation. The panel agreed, however, that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires a plaintiff to allege that s/he is disabled within the meaning of the Act. The panel said Tate should haveidentifieda specific disability.

Had the judge told the plaintiff before dismissing his suit what was missing from the complaint, or had he dismissed just the complaint and not the suit and informed the plaintiff of a plaintiffs right to rectify the deficiencies of his complaint in an amended complaint, we might have been spared this appeal, and the district judge a remand, concluded the panel.

Posner, an expert in the area of law and economics, is one ofthe most cited legal scholar of the 20th century.

The case isTATE , v. SCR MEDICAL TRANSPORTATION,No. 151447 (7th Cir. December 28, 2015).

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