Pleading Poverty in Federal Court
88 Pages Posted: 6 Mar 2018 Last revised: 5 Feb 2020
Date Written: January 15, 2018
What must a poor person plead to gain access to the federal courts? How do courts decide when a poor litigant is poor enough? This Article answers those questions with the first comprehensive study of how district courts determine when a litigant may proceed in forma pauperis in a civil lawsuit. This Article shows that district courts lack standards to determine a litigant’s poverty and often require litigants to answer an array of questions to little effect. As a result, discrepancies in federal practice abound — across and within district courts — and produce a pleading system that is arbitrary, inefficient, and invasive. This Article makes four contributions. First, it codes all the poverty pleadings currently used by the 94 federal district courts. Second, the Article shows that the flaws of these pleading procedures are neither inevitable nor characteristic of poverty determinations. By comparing federal practice to other federal means tests and state court practices, the Article demonstrates that a more streamlined, yet rights-respecting approach is possible. Third, the Article proposes a coherent in forma pauperis standard — one that would align federal practice with federal law, promote reasoned judicial administration, and protect the dignity of litigants. Such a solution proves that judges need not choose between extending access to justice and preserving court resources. In this instance and perhaps others, judges can serve both commitments of the federal system. Fourth, the Article illustrates how to study procedure from the bottom up. Given the persistent levels of inequality in American society, no account of civil procedure is complete without an understanding of how poor people litigate today.
Keywords: civil procedure, federal courts, access to justice
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