Pro Se Litigants Have No Right to a Pro Se Manual, or to Other Assistance From the Courts

Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 704 F.3d 239 (3d Cir. 2013).  Plaintiff, a citizen of the Virgin Islands, refueled his powerboat at defendant’s fueling station.  The boat’s tank overflowed with gasoline, and even though plaintiff tried to clean up the excess gasoline, the boat caught fire and exploded as plaintiff was leaving the marina.  Plaintiff sued and demanded a jury trial.  The Virgin Islands court found that there was no diversity of citizenship, and that its only jurisdiction was in admiralty, under which there was no jury trial right.  The court therefore empaneled an advisory jury only.  The jury recommended in favor of plaintiff, but the court entered judgment for defendant.  Plaintiff appealed, and Judge Hardiman, writing for the panel, affirmed the ruling below.

Plaintiff’s first argument on appeal was that he should have received a pro se manual, a manual that is available to pro se litigants in other districts in the Third Circuit and elsewhere.  Judge Smith concluded that “pro se litigants do not have a right to general legal advice from judges, so the District Court did not abuse its discretion by failing to provide a manual.”  A “long line” of Supreme Court cases says that courts have no obligation to provide legal advice to pro se parties.  The fact that sometimes courts are more indulgent to pro se parties regarding procedural rules, and that courts sometimes give more leeway to prisoner pro se parties, does not establish any right to advice for pro se parties generally. 

Finally, Judge Smith noted that this plaintiff “has less reason to complain than the neophyte pro se litigant, having filed more than twenty suits in the past.”  Besides, plaintiff never identified anything he would have done differently had the District Court of the Virgin Islands provided a pro se manual, and he could have accessed pro se manuals from other districts on the internet.

The panel went on to reject plaintiff’s jury trial claims.  The district court rightly found that there was no diversity jurisdiction, and admiralty jurisdiction did not afford a right to a jury trial.  Nor was there any error either in empaneling an advisory jury or in rejecting that advisory jury’s verdict.