The Perils of Being a Pro Se Appellant

Barna v. Maldonado, 2011 WL 5244968 (App. Div. Nov. 4, 2011).  The two appellants, who were plaintiffs in this case, appeared pro se.  In the Law Division, they had won a jury verdict of $1,050 in their dispute with their neighbor, defendant Maldonado, over a water drainage problem.  Plaintiffs appealed, seeking more damages.  In an unpublished decision, Judges Ashrafi and Fasciale affirmed the ruling below.

As non-lawyers representing themselves, plaintiffs did not supply the trial transcripts as required by Rule 2:6-1(a)(1).  They also submitted an incomplete and inadequate appendix.  The panel found itself “unable to evaluate any of [plaintiffs’] arguments because plaintiffs have not provided transcripts of the trial.” 

At oral argument, when the panel raised the issue of the absence of the transcripts, plaintiffs sought additional time to provide them.  The panel denied that application because it was incumbent on plaintiffs to follow the established schedule for furnishing the transcripts.  “Litigation cannot proceed by misstep and repetition until a party produces the evidence or the record that will persuade the jury or the judges.  To be fair to all sides and reasonably efficient, litigation must follow an orderly procedure and schedule.”

On the record presented, there was no basis for the panel to alter the damages verdict.  The panel also discussed at some length the fact that the trial judge had required the plaintiffs, who were also pro se in the Law Division, to submit in advance written questions for the court to ask plaintiffs at trial, on the grounds that allowing one plaintiff to examine the other would constitute the unauthorized practice of law.  The panel found that procedure unnecessary and improper, since (for example) one plaintiff could have examined the other plaintiff without engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.  But this trial error did not affect the result and did not call for a reversal.

This case was small enough that plaintiffs likely could not afford to engage an attorney.  They paid the price, however, when their own inability to follow the appellate rules essentially deprived them of the chance to have their arguments fully considered on their merits, whatever those merits might have been.