On Monday, Nov. 15, the Federal Bar Association’s (FBA) Pro Bono Committee and Employment Law Committee joined with the Federal District Judges Pro Bono Committee, chaired by U.S. District Court Judge Denise Page Hood, Eastern District of Michigan, to present the first FBA clinic for pro se litigants with cases pending in federal court.
A total of 16 litigants attended this three-hour program, thanks to the efforts of U.S. District Court Clerk David Weaver’s office and Hood’s staff, who identified all of the pro se litigants with employment discrimination cases pending in the Eastern District and then sent them a personal letter inviting them to attend. The court also provided snacks and beverages for those in attendance.
Hood began the program by welcoming the pro se litigants and thanking FBA Pro Bono Committee Co-Chairs Patrice Arend, Rick Haberman, and John Nussbaumer for organizing the program.
Dickinson Wright partner Sherry O’Neal Taylor spoke next, covering the basics of employment discrimination cases. She prepared and provided the pro se litigants with a seven-page handout that covered the nuts and bolts of Title VII, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (42. U.S.C. Sec 1981), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Michigan Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act, and retaliation claims under these different statutes. The format of her presentation was very interactive, taking many questions from the litigants as she covered the material, with answers provided by her and the other volunteer lawyers present, including Tim Howlett, head of the employment law group at Dickinson Wright, and Joseph Golden, partner at Pitt, McGehee, Palmer, Rivers, & Golden. The topics covered included not only the substantive law related to these causes of action, but also the strategy and tactics involved in these cases.
Golden spoke next, presenting the plaintiff’s perspective and providing valuable practical and common sense insights about how pro se litigants can level the playing field in going up against opposing parties represented by counsel, and about the impact of the current economic downturn on juror psychology in employment discrimination cases. Golden also discussed motions for summary judgment, discovery tactics, and the timing and art of settlement negotiations.
Following this part of the program, eight volunteer lawyers provided free, individual half-hour consultations to the 16 litigants in attendance. In addition to Sherry O’Neal Taylor and Joe Golden, lawyers Patrice Arend with Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer, & Weiss PC; Tiffany Buckley-Norwood with Dickinson Wright; Nicole Foley with Jaffe Raitt; Tim Howlett and Lee Khachaturian with Dickinson Wright; and Cary McGehee with Pitt, McGehee, Palmer, Rivers, & Golden also participated. Three students from Thomas M. Cooley Law School—Mandi Bucceroni, LaToya Palmer, and Alena Vackova—paired up with three of the volunteer lawyers to observe these consultations.
The pro se litigants expressed their thanks for the program, and the FBA is considering replicating it for other subject areas by partnering with other FBA committees and volunteer lawyers. The FBA has asked Hood and Weaver for their suggestions about other subject areas that generate a large amount of pro se work for the Clerk’s Office and the court.