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Home 9 Federal Legal Corner 9 Benefit of Doubt when Representing Oneself

Benefit of Doubt when Representing Oneself

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently issued a decision that confirmed the notion that employees who file complaints without attorneys should be given the benefit of the doubt in their pleadings, to avoid improper dismissal of their claims. See Smith v. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2009 WL 2407192 (C.A.5 (La.)) (August 6, 2009).

Jerome Smith brought a discrimination suit against the Department of Veterans Affairs. Proceeding with his case through the administrative process before the EEOC, Smith was awarded $80,000 in damages. The agency paid Smith the full amount by check, which he cashed. Smith then appealed the decision to the federal district court.

The Civil Rights Act permits employees of the federal government to sue their employing agencies, alleging unlawful discrimination. This statute gives federal employees the opportunity to appeal decisions issued in the agency and EEOC’s administrative process to federal court. However, the statute allows only two kinds of appeals: 1) those seeking enforcement of a previous award, and 2) those seeking an initial or a new decision on their cases.

In the federal district court, the agency filed a motion to dismiss, alleging that Smith’s appeal sought review only of the amount of the award granted by the Office of Federal Operations, EEOC, and thus did not fall into either of the two categories of appeals that the federal court can hear under Title VII. The magistrate judge of the district court agreed and dismissed the appeal.

Smith appealed the district court’s dismissal. The circuit court found that Smith had originally filed his appeal of the agency’s decision without an attorney and that his complaint was therefore entitled to a more lenient standard of review than if it had been drafted by an attorney. The court also found the complaint outlined all the facts relevant to the original discrimination claim, and did not make any definite statement affirming that Smith only wished the court to review the amount of the award. Under the applicable lenient standard of review, the circuit court found that Smith’s complaint sought reconsideration of the entire agency decision and that the district court did therefore have jurisdiction to consider the appeal. The court also noted that Smith’s cashing of the check did not preclude his bringing the action, but noted that if the court found no liability, or awarded less than $80,000 in damages, the agency would be able to sue to recover the funds from Smith.

This case may help federal employees who appeal agency decisions on discrimination complaints without an attorney to avoid dismissal of their appeals to federal court for lack of jurisdiction. Under this decision, as long as the employee makes reference to more than a limited portion of his case and does not specifically request a review of that portion only, the court will likely accept jurisdiction over his case, for complete review.