January 31, 2014

Thinking of Handling Your Appeal Pro Se?

Thinking of Handling Your Appeal Pro Se?

If you have lost a trial-level case or received an unfavorable interlocutory ruling, it is to your advantage to hire an appellate lawyer. Sometimes we see individuals decide to handle an appeal on their own (“pro se”), which can be complex and difficult for an individual who is not trained in the substantive law or the intricate appellate rules and procedures.

The Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal has tried to help by providing a link to several useful documents at www.4dca.org/opinions/geniformfrm.shtml, including “Understanding the Appellate Process in the Fourth District Court of Appeal” (provided by members of the Palm Beach County Appellate Practice Committee) and the Pro Se Appellate Handbook: Representing Yourself on Appeal, an excellent resource prepared by individual members of The Florida Bar Appellate Practice Section as a public service. However, it is often difficult for a non-lawyer to decipher the appellate rules and procedures and apply them correctly, as well as trying to research and argue the substantive law effectively.

Not only are appeals different from lower court cases, but appeals in various kinds of cases are also different from routine civil appeals. For instance, special rules apply to unemployment appeals, workers compensation appeals, appeals from criminal and juvenile cases, dependency cases, appeals from administrative agencies, and various other special cases. There are also distinctions between federal and state appeals; and certain procedures in the individual state appellate courts can vary in subtle ways that can be confusing to parties who are not familiar with those differences.

Another difficulty with self-representation is deciding whether the case actually has sufficient legal merit to pursue an appeal. One of the first tasks of an appellate attorney is to review the record and determine whether there is any substantial basis to go forward with an appeal. Sometimes a pro se appellant may overrate the merits because of the emotional involvement in the case, like the proverbial inability “to see the forest for the trees.”

If a pro se appellant files several documents that the court deems to lack merit, the court may go so far as to preclude the party from filing any further documents in that court unless the documents are signed by a member of The Florida Bar (and only if that lawyer determines that the intended filing has merit).  A recent example of such situation is seen in a decision of The Florida Supreme Court on January 23, 2014 (case numbers No. SC12-840 and No. SC12-842), where the Court noted that the petitioner had filed numerous proceedings but “has not obtained relief on the merits in any of the proceedings that have been disposed of in this Court.”

The Court went on to “exercise [its] inherent power . . . to protect itself from abuse of the judicial process and bar Petitioner . . . from any future pro se filings of any kind related to his foreclosure proceedings.” The only exception will be if such filings “are signed by a member in good standing of The Florida Bar. Counsel may file on [his] behalf if counsel determines that the proceeding may have merit and can be brought in good faith.”

That recent decision illustrates one of the benefits of hiring an appellate lawyer to pursue your appeal or to represent you if the opposing party brings an appeal. Only you can decide whether you can afford to hire a lawyer, but it can certainly be to your advantage to be represented by an attorney who has experience in appeals.