Service Opportunities

Volunteering for Pro Bono Representation:

The Federal Bar Association Pro Bono Committee functions as a liaison to assist the Court in finding willing and qualified counsel to represent prisoners in the civil litigation described. Counsel will first be contacted by a member of the Committee. If counsel indicates availability for representation, the Committee will so advise the Court and the lawyer may proceed to file an entry of appearance on behalf of the pro se litigant.

Attorneys Eligible for Volunteer Representation:

Any licensed attorney admitted to practice before the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma is eligible for appointment.

An application form must be completed and is available on the Court’s website at: http://www.okwd.uscourts.gov/probono.htm

Types of Cases:

State prisoner actions brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983

Federal prisoner actions brought pursuant to Bivens or other applicable federal law (e.g., Federal Tort Claims Act)

Representative types of claims:

  • Eighth Amendment violations based on delayed or denied medical care
  • Eighth Amendment violations based on unconstitutional conditions of confinement (e.g., lack of outdoor recreation, filthy cell conditions, nutritionally inadequate food, etc...)
  • Eighth Amendment violations based on excessive use of force
  • First Amendment Free Exercise Clause violations based on hindrance or denial of ability to practice religious beliefs

Representative defendants:

Defendants must be governmental actors. Typical defendants include: Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Board of County Commissioners, Sheriff, Jailers, Correctional Officers, Third-Party Contractors (e.g., Hospitals, Doctors, Nurses).

Why Representation is Needed:

In the Western District of Oklahoma, civil rights lawsuits filed by state and federal prisoners comprise a significant percentage of all civil case filings annually.

Prisoners have no right to counsel in these civil actions and, therefore, typically appear pro se.

A substantial number of prisoner cases are dismissed upon the Court’s own screening (e.g., for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted) or upon the grant of a dispositive motion filed on behalf of the named defendant(s).

When a case presents triable issues of fact for a jury, the prisoner generally needs appointment of counsel, a determination subject to the Court’s discretion. Counsel may need to conduct limited additional discovery, prepare for and attend the court-ordered settlement conference and prepare for trial. In limited circumstances, filing or defending additional dispositive motions may be warranted. In addition, amendment of the complaint to add parties or claims may be warranted.

Client Communications:

Counsel must be prepared to address challenges of working with an incarcerated client. Often, counsel will need to meet with the client at the facility of incarceration. Instructions for making proper arrangements must be made with the appropriate facility as facilities have varying requirements and regulations for visiting. Contact the facility to arrange a private, attorney-client, contact visit and, unless it is a county jail, do not assume you can call one day and visit the same or next day. The facility may ask you to fax or email a request on letterhead. Call again to confirm the visit before you head to the facility. If you want to use special equipment, such as an audio recorder or camera, you must obtain prior approval. Be sure to take your ID and your bar card when you visit.

Court Appearances:

Transporting the prisoner for court appearances can often be problematic. Routinely, prisoners appear by way of telephone conference for participation in the court-ordered settlement conference. If a prisoner is required to appear in court, arrangements for transportation must be made through the detaining authority (e.g., county sheriff, Oklahoma Department of Corrections) well in advance and only after the Court issues a writ of habeas corpus ad prosequendum, ordering the prisoner to be brought into court.

Fees and Expenses:

Representation of the inmates is on a pro bono basis. If, however, the prisoner/plaintiff prevails, fees may be recoverable pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988.

Reimbursement of extraordinary costs (e.g., transcripts and expert witness fees) may be permitted, subject to approval by the judge to whom the case is assigned, pursuant to the Court’s Misc. Order No. 22, Authorization for Reimbursement of Certain Expenses from the Non-AppropriatedFund. Reimbursement shall not exceed $1,500 per case except in unusual circumstances.

The Western District of Oklahoma has a plan that provides an exemption to the fees charged by PACER. PACER stands for Public Access to Court Electronic Records. You can use PACER to review the documents filed in your assigned case, or any other related matter. Local conditions must first be met, e.g., counsel must be identified or named as the lawyer in a prisoner civil rights case. The next step is to notify Rhonda Reynolds in the Court Clerk’s office via email at [email protected] or via telephone at 405.609.5039. Reynolds will assist you with establishing a separate PACER account that will be exempt from the PACER user fees. 

Helpful Resources:
  • Oklahoma Department of Corrections website: www.doc.state.ok.us
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons website: www.bop.gov
  • Federal Bar Association Pro Bono Committee Chair - Susanna Gattoni, [email protected]
  • Handbook of Section 1983 Litigation, 2009 Edition, David W. Lee