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O'Reilly v. New York Times Co.

decided: November 2, 1982.


Appeal by Rev. John T. O'Reilly from an order of the District Court for the Southern District of New York, Vincent L. Broderick, Judge, denying appellant's motion to discharge his counsel and proceed pro se in a multi-plaintiff civil action. Reversed.

Friendly, Newman and Kearse, Circuit Judges.

Author: Friendly

FRIENDLY, Circuit Judge:

In this action in the District Court for the Southern District of New York, in which federal jurisdiction is predicated on diverse citizenship, 28 U.S.C. § 1332, Contemporary Mission, Inc., a not-for-profit organization of Catholic priests based in Westport, Connecticut, and four of its five member-priests, including appellant Rev. John T. O'Reilly, have sued The New York Times Company for libel. The alleged libel, printed in the Times for November 1, 1980, was an article about the Mission and its priests by Diane Henry. The article said, inter alia, that church officials in St. Louis, led by John Cardinal Carberry, had accused the priests of forging documents for their ordinations; that Monsignor Cusack of the Bridgeport, Conn., Diocese had written that the priests were not recognized by the diocese and were unable to function as Catholic priests; that in 1977 the State of Connecticut had gotten a cease and desist order against them for failing to deliver merchandise; that the Postal Service had charged them with fraud in the sale of bath-oil; that Father O'Reilly had married, which would normally mean his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church, but that he said he had switched to the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church which allows priests to marry; and that the Mission's public court record "raises questions about whether the priests may have cloaked a profitable business in the guise of a religious, tax-exempt organization." Plaintiffs allege that these and other statements are false or so incomplete as to convey a misleadingly false impression. The initial complaint, filed on November 20, 1980, and the first amended complaint, filed on December 10, 1980, were signed both by Leonard H. Rubin, Esq., for the New York City law firm of Anderson/Rubin, and by appellant's brother, William D. O'Reilly, Esq., who gave a New Hampshire address. There is no indication, however, that Anderson/Rubin have taken any significant part in the action. William O'Reilly conducted the extensive discovery and motion practice which preceded appellant's request to proceed pro se ; Anderson/Rubin presumably performed occasional ministerial chores in their capacity as local counsel. The supplemental answer to the first amended complaint contains what amounts to a general denial and pleads ten affirmative defenses.

On April 29, 1982, thirteen days after the Times had filed notice that it was proposing to move for summary judgment, Rev. John O'Reilly wrote the district judge to say that he had discharged William, without cause and with the latter's consent, and that pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1654*fn1 he would thereafter plead and conduct his case pro se. On April 30 counsel for the Times filed a letter of protest with the judge arguing, inter alia, that, as the magistrate supervising discovery had already indicated on April 27 when William O'Reilly had announced his brother's intention, Rev. O'Reilly would have to move under Rule 3(c) of the General Rules of the Southern District.*fn2 The judge rejected Rev. O'Reilly's letter with a handwritten endorsement dated April 30, 1982, reading:

Application denied. See Rule 3, General Rules of this court. So ordered.

On May 27, 1982, Rev. O'Reilly made a formal motion to proceed pro se. Counsel for the Times answered with an affidavit placing two documents before the Court: The first was a notice by attorney William O'Reilly, dated December 18, 1981, changing his address to care of Contemporary Mission, Inc., 285 Saugatuck Avenue, Westport, Conn. The second was an excerpt from a deposition of one of the plaintiffs, Rev. Patrick J. Berkery, taken on January 20, 1982, in which counsel for the defendant took note of Father O'Reilly's presence and asked attorney William O'Reilly in what capacity he appeared. William answered that Father O'Reilly "is assisting me in a paralegal capacity, as he has throughout the course of this civil action." Counsel for the Times objected to his presence as such but the deposition continued.

The district judge heard oral arguments on the application to appear pro se on June 23, 1982. The judge denied the motion in an oral opinion set forth in the margin.*fn3 Father O'Reilly appealed and, over the opposition of counsel for the Times, a panel of this court granted his motion that the appeal be expedited.


Appellee would have us analogize the order here at issue to one denying a motion to disqualify counsel, which we have held to be unappealable under the collateral order doctrine of Cohen v. Beneficial Industrial Loan Corp., 337 U.S. 541, 545-47, 93 L. Ed. 1528, 69 S. Ct. 1221 (1949), see Armstrong v. McAlpin, 625 F.2d 433 (2 Cir. 1980) (en banc), vacated on other grounds, 449 U.S. 1106, 101 S. Ct. 911, 66 L. Ed. 2d 835 (1981), a position subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court in Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Risjord, 449 U.S. 368, 66 L. Ed. 2d 571, 101 S. Ct. 669 (1981). Appellant contends that the closer analogy is to an order granting a motion to disqualify counsel which we have long held to be appealable under the Cohen doctrine, see Fleischer v. Phillips, 264 F.2d 515, 517, cert. denied, 359 U.S. 1002, 79 S. Ct. 1139, 3 L. Ed. 2d 1030 (1959), a position reaffirmed in McAlpin, supra, 625 F.2d at 440-41. Although neither analogy is perfect, the latter seems closer. Rev. O'Reilly has not sought to disqualify his brother; he has simply discharged him. What the district court has done in effect is to disqualify Rev. O'Reilly from representing himself; at the instance of the adverse party it has forced upon him counsel whom he does not want. The practical effect of a denial of a motion to proceed pro se is thus the same as that of a grant of a motion to disqualify -- namely, the losing party must go forward in the litigation with representation not of his choosing. Cf. McAlpin, supra, 625 F.2d at 440.

Analogies aside, direct application of the three-part "collateral order" test, set forth in Coopers & Lybrand v. Livesay, 437 U.S. 463, 57 L. Ed. 2d 351, 98 S. Ct. 2454 (1978) and repeated in Firestone, supra, 449 U.S. at 375, points toward the appealability of the order here at issue. Under this test an order comes within the Cohen doctrine if it "conclusively determine[s] the disputed question, resolve[s] an important issue completely separate from the merits of the case, and [is] effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment." Coopers & Lybrand, supra, 437 U.S. at 468-69. The only element here in doubt is the third.*fn4 It is true, of course, that if plaintiffs should prevail to their entire satisfaction, there will be no need to review the order here in question. There can be no assurance, however, that they will in fact prevail; indeed the Times asserts it is entitled to summary judgment. If such summary judgment should be granted or the case should be decided in the Times' favor after a trial, or the case should be decided in Rev. O'Reilly's favor but with what he deems an inadequate award of damages, Rev. O'Reilly might well be required on appeal to show that he would not have lost if he had been permitted to represent himself. Unless it could be established that William had done something clearly against his interests, as would be unlikely, this burden would be "almost insurmountable", McAlpin, supra, 625 F.2d at 441, and thus the order denying his motion to proceed pro se would be "effectively unreviewable" within the meaning of the Cohen doctrine. To be sure, Rev. O'Reilly's burden on appeal from an adverse final judgment would be greatly lightened if there were a presumption of prejudice from an erroneous denial of the statutory right of self-representation. The Times naturally does not concede the existence of any such presumption -- it says only that if we defer review until after judgment we will "have the benefit of a full record with which to assess Judge Broderick's order", Brief at 13 -- and, whatever the situation in criminal cases may be, see United States v. Plattner, 330 F.2d 271, 273 (2 Cir. 1964) (prejudice presumed from erroneous denial of the constitutional right of self-representation); United States v. Dougherty, 154 U.S. App. D.C. 76, 473 F.2d 1113, 1127-28 (D.C. Cir. 1972) (harmless error doctrine inapplicable to denial of right of self-representation); Chapman v. United States, 553 F.2d 886, 891-92 (5 Cir. 1977) (same); cf. Holloway v. Arkansas, 435 U.S. 475, 487-91, 55 L. Ed. 2d 426, 98 S. Ct. 1173 (1978) (prejudice presumed when court improperly requires joint representation over timely objection), we know of no authority suggesting any such presumption in a civil case. We therefore hold the order here to be appealable.

The Merits

We start with the proposition that the right to self-representation in civil cases conferred by § 35 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, although not enjoying the constitutional protection subsequently afforded to the right of self-representation in criminal cases, Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 45 L. Ed. 2d 562, 95 S. Ct. 2525 (1975), is a right of high standing, not simply a practice to be honored or dishonored by a court depending on its assessment of the desiderata of a particular case. As the Court said in Faretta, supra, 422 U.S. at 830 n.39: "The Founders believed that self-representation was a basic right of a free people."*fn5 Section 1654 comes to us freighted with history; it calls back visions of days when much litigation, especially on the "law side", was carried on by strong self-reliant citizens who preferred to appeal to the sense of justice of "the country" rather than entrust their causes to lawyers trained in the intricacies of the law. In light of all this and with a citation to Faretta, we recognized in Phillips v. Tobin, 548 F.2d 408, 411 (2d Cir. N.Y. 1976), the "long established principle that in the federal courts the parties have the right to plead and conduct their own cases. . . .", although holding the principle inapplicable when a layman sought to represent a corporation of which he was a stockholder in a derivative suit.

The few qualifications which this court has put on the clear language of the self-representation clause of § 1654 are consistent with its high purpose. One such qualification, enunciated in criminal cases, see United States v. Bentvena, 319 F.2d 916, 938 (2 Cir. 1963); United States ex rel. Maldonado v. Denno, 348 F.2d 12, 15 (2 Cir. 1965), cert. denied, 384 U.S. 1007, 86 S. Ct. 1950, 16 L. Ed. 2d 1020 (1966), but equally applicable in civil cases, is that the right to self-representation must be timely asserted. The right is "unqualified" if invoked prior to trial but is "sharply curtailed" if first asserted after the trial has begun. Denno, supra, 348 F.2d at 15. An untimely request is committed to the discretion of the trial court, which may consider, among other factors, the reason for the request, the quality of the counsel representing the moving party, the party's prior proclivity to substitute counsel, and the potential disruption to the proceedings. See Sapienza v. Vincent, 534 F.2d 1007, 1010 (2 Cir. 1976). Rev. ...

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