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Pro Se Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

This section provides answers to common questions from incarcerated people who file civil cases without a lawyer, also referred to as incarcerated pro se litigants. This section is organized by question type.

Please review these FAQs carefully.

  • Can the Court appoint an attorney to represent me for free?

    Yes, but not in every case. No one, including incarcerated prisoners, has a constitutional right to be represented by appointed counsel when they file a civil lawsuit without an attorney.  Unlike criminal cases, a judge cannot order a lawyer to represent a plaintiff in a civil case, a judge can merely request a lawyer to do so.  Additionally, a judge may only request counsel for an indigent plaintiff under "exceptional circumstances" which requires an evaluation of both the likelihood of success on the merits and the ability of the plaintiff to present their claims without an attorney in light of the complexity of the legal issues involved.  

    If you are unable to find an attorney on your own, after your case is filed you may file a Motion for the Appointment of Counsel.  In this motion, please explain why you need a lawyer including why you think your case will succeed and why you are unable to present your claims in light of the complexity of the legal issues involved.

    The judge will review the motion and make a decision whether they will appoint counsel to assist you in your case. For more information please refer to the Requesting a Lawyer page.  

  • Are there rules I have to follow and where can I find them?

    Yes. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, often abbreviated as “Fed. R. Civ. P.” are rules that control every civil case filed in every federal court across the country. The Local Rules, often abbreviated as “L.R.,” are rules that apply to every case filed in the District of Montana. Failure to comply with these rules can have serious consequences for your case. For links to these rules and for more information, please refer to the Court's Rules & Procedures page. 

  • What do all of these legal terms mean?

    Courts and lawyers often use terms that have special meanings when used in the legal setting. Please refer to the Glossary of Legal Terms page. 

  • Where can I find legal decisions and legal resources?
  • How do I file a lawsuit?

    The first step in filing a lawsuit is to write a Complaint. A Complaint is a written statement in which you set forth the facts of your case and state what you would like to happen or what relief you are seeking. You must submit your complaint to the Clerk’s Office and either pay the appropriate filing fee or seek permission from the judge to proceed without pre-paying the filing fee (proceeding “in forma pauperis” or “IFP”). 

  • If I cannot afford the filing fee, can I still file a lawsuit?

    If you cannot afford the filing fee, you may ask the judge for permission to proceed without prepaying the filing fee. This is called petitioning the Court to proceed in forma pauperis. If you are approved and you are incarcerated, you will still have to pay the filing fee. The fee will be deducted in monthly installments from your Inmate Account.  

    You must first submit a Request to Proceed Without Prepayment of Fees and/or Costs. This application is available for download on the Court Filings: Blank Forms and Samples page.  If you are incarcerated, you must submit a copy of your Inmate Account Statement. The statement must be certified by the appropriate employee of the jail or prison where you are incarcerated. 

    After you submit the completed materials, the judge will review the information you provide to determine if you can pay the filing fee. If the judge determines you can pay the filing fee or part of the filing fee, the judge will order you to do so. If the judge determines you cannot pay the filing fee all at once, you will be allowed to proceed with your lawsuit without prepaying the filing fee.  

  • How do I serve my complaint on the defendant(s)?

    You are required to let all defendant(s) named in your complaint know that you have filed a case against them in federal court.  Once you have paid the filing fee, you may request that the Clerk's Office issue summons to each defendant listed on your complaint.  The summons form is available at the Clerk's Office or at the following link:

    The original summons form will then be returned to you for execution of service on the defendant(s).  It is your responsibility to ensure that each defendant receives a copy of the certified summons form, a copy of your complaint and any other documents.  This process is called "service" or "serving the defendant."

    The rules for serving the original complaint are different from the rules for serving other papers.  If the complaint is not properly served on the defendant(s), your case may not proceed.  The requirements for serving the complaint are established in Fed. R. Civ. P. 4.

    Generally, defendant(s) must be served within 90 days after the complaint has been filed, as established by Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(m).

    If you were granted permission to proceed in forma pauperis ("IFP", see FAQ If I cannot afford the filing fee, can I still file a lawsuit?), the Clerk's Office will send requests for waiver of service.  If that is unsuccessful, the Court will require the United States Marshsals to serve the defendant(s).

  • I filed my complaint and served the defendant(s). What happens next?

    After the defendant is served with a summons and a copy of the Complaint, the defendant generally must file a document called an Answer to the complaint.  Once the defendant files their Answer, the judge may schedule a conference with the parties. The judge may decide to have the conference over the phone or in the court. During this conference, the judge will discuss scheduling further proceedings in your case.  Alternatively, the judge will just issue a scheduling order.  The judge will set a deadline for the parties to make their initial disclosures, as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(a). The judge usually will also set deadlines for the parties to complete all discovery and to file dispositive motions. 

  • What are motions and how do they work in general?

    A motion is a formal legal document that asks the Court to do something in a case.  

    The side that files the motion must submit a Brief in Support. This document contains arguments that support granting the motion.  

    The other side then has two weeks to file a Response to the motion. The Response must respond to the arguments in the Brief in Support.  

    The other side (the party that filed the motion) then may file a Reply. The Reply is a document that responds to the arguments in the Response.  

  • What if I need more time to respond to a motion or court order?

    You may file a motion requesting an extension of time. The motion will need to ask for a specific amount of extra time (such as 30 days, for example). The motion also should explain why you need more time. A blank template and sample motion are available for download on the Court Filings Blank Forms & Samples page.   

  • What is a Motion to Dismiss?

    Defendants may file a Motion to Dismiss. A Motion to Dismiss asks the Court to end the case without discovery or a trial. Motions to dismiss are based only on what is in your Complaint, not on documents or other evidence the defendant(s). 

  • What is a Motion for Summary Judgment?

    Another common motion that defendants will file is a Motion for Summary Judgment. A Motion for Summary Judgment usually happens after discovery. It asks the Court to end the case before trial, based on documents and other evidence filed in the case by both the plaintiff(s) and defendant(s). 

  • When will the judge rule on my motion? Can I get a status update?

    The Clerk’s Office will not be able to tell you when the judge will rule on a pending motion. The Clerk’s Office will mail you a copy of the judge’s decision on your motion after the judge issues their order. The Clerk’s Office will also enter the decision on the docket of the case in the Court’s electronic filing system, CM/ECF.  You may request a copy of the docket. 

  • What is discovery?

    During discovery, the parties exchange information about the case. This may include exchanging documents, presenting interrogatories (written questions) or conducting depositions. The discovery phase usually lasts for multiple months. 

  • What is mediation or settlement?

    Mediation or a settlement conference is an out-of-court way for people to resolve disputes. A mediator is a neutral and impartial third party who is trained to help people reach agreements about contested issues. Both parties meet with the mediator to talk about what they want and what they think is best. At any point in the case, the parties may try to mediate the case.  

    No one can force either side to accept a settlement. If the parties reach a settlement, the case ends. 

  • The judge dismissed my lawsuit or I lost at trial. What can I do?

    You may appeal a decision to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit by filing a notice of appeal in the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana within 30 days after the entry of judgment. (See Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure 3, 4.) The judge may extend this deadline if you request an extension and show good cause or excusable neglect for not being able to meet the 30-day deadline. (See Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(5)(A).)

    Under certain circumstances, you may ask the judge to alter or amend the judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) or ask for relief from judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b). Any motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) must be filed within 28 days of the entry of judgment. The judge cannot extend this deadline. (See Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 6(b)(2).) Any motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) must be filed within a reasonable time, generally no more than one year after the entry of the judgment. The judge cannot extend this deadline. (See Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 6(b)(2).)