Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc.

Decision Date03 December 2012
Docket NumberNo. 10–4710.,10–4710.
Citation58 V.I. 691
PartiesKelley Joseph MALA, Appellant v. CROWN BAY MARINA, INC.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Filed: Jan. 7, 2013.

Alan R. Feuerstein, Feuerstein & Smith, Buffalo, NY, for Appellant.

W. Mark Wilczynski, St. Thomas, VI, for Appellee.

Before: SMITH, HARDIMAN, and ROTH, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

SMITH, Circuit Judge.

Kelley Mala sued Crown Bay Marina after his boat exploded. The District Court conducted a bench trial during which Mala represented himself and after which the court rejected his negligence claims. Mala now contends that the court should have provided him with additional assistance because of his status as a pro se litigant. He also contends that the court wrongfully denied his request for a jury trial and improperly ruled on a variety of post-trial motions. We reject these contentions and we will affirm.

I

Mala is a citizen of the United States Virgin Islands. On January 6, 2005, he went for a cruise in his powerboat near St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. When his boat ran low on gas, he entered Crown Bay Marina to refuel. Mala tied the boat to one of Crown Bay's eight fueling stations and began filling his tank with an automatic gas pump. Before walking to the cash register to buy oil, Mala asked a Crown Bay attendant to watch his boat.

By the time Mala returned, the boat's tank was overflowing and fuel was spilling into the boat and into the water. The attendant manually shut off the pump and acknowledged that the pump had been malfunctioning in recent days. Mala began cleaning up the fuel, and at some point, the attendant provided soap and water. Mala eventually departed the marina, but as he did so, the engine caught fire and exploded. Mala was thrown into the water and was severely burned. His boat was unsalvageable.

More than a year later, Mala sued Crown Bay in the District Court of the Virgin Islands.1 Mala's pro se complaint asserted two claims: first, that Crown Bay negligently trained and supervised its attendant, and second, that Crown Bay negligently maintained its gas pump. The complaint also alleged that the District Court had admiralty and diversity jurisdiction over the case, and it requested a jury trial. At the time Mala filed the complaint, he was imprisoned in Puerto Rico. Although the record is silent on the reason for his imprisonment, it is fair to say that he is a seasoned litigant—in fact, he has filed at least twenty other pro se lawsuits.2See Appellee's Br. at 21–22.

Mala's original complaint named “Crown Bay Marina Inc. as the sole defendant. But Mala soon amended his complaint by adding other defendants—including Crown Bay's dock attendant, Chubb Group Insurance Company, Crown Bay's attorney, and “Marine Management Services Inc, [a] registered corporation entity duly licensed to conduct business in the State of Florida ..., d/b/a Crown Bay Marina Inc, [ ] a corporate entity duly licensed to conduct business in St. Thomas Virgin Islands of the Unites States.” JA 55. The District Court allowed Mala to amend his complaint a second time by adding his wife as a plaintiff—though the court dismissed her loss-of-consortium claim shortly thereafter. Mala later attempted to amend his complaint a third time by adding Texaco as a defendant. The District Court rejected this attempt for failing to comply with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a)(2) (requiring the other side's consent or the court's leave).3

As the trial approached, two significant incidents took place. First, the District Court decided on its own to identify the parties to the case. It concluded that the only parties were Mala and “Marine Services Management d/b/a Crown Bay Marina, Inc. JA 132. It thereby dismissed all other defendants that Mala had named in his various pleadings.

Next, Crown Bay filed a motion to strike Mala's jury demand. Crown Bay argued that plaintiffs generally do not have a jury-trial right in admiralty cases—only when the court also has diversity jurisdiction. And Crown Bay asserted that the parties were not diverse in this case, which the court itself had acknowledged in a previous order. In response to this motion, the District Court ruled that both Mala and Crown Bay were citizens of the Virgin Islands. The court therefore struck Mala's jury demand, but nevertheless opted to empanel an advisory jury.

The trial began at the end of 2010—nearly four and a half years after Mala filed his complaint. The delay is partly attributable to the District Court's decision to postpone the trial until after Mala's release from prison. At the close of Mala's case-in-chief, Crown Bay renewed a previous motion for summary judgment. The court granted the motion on the negligent-supervision claim but allowed the negligent-maintenance claim to go forward. At the end of the trial, the advisory jury returned a verdict of $460,000 for Mala—$400,000 for pain and suffering and $60,000 in compensatory damages. It concluded that Mala was 25 percent at fault and that Crown Bay was 75 percent at fault. The District Court ultimately rejected the verdict and entered judgment for Crown Bay on both claims.

After his loss at trial, Mala filed a flurry of motions, asking the court to vacate its judgment and hold a new trial. These motions contained numerous overlapping objections. A magistrate judge prepared three Reports and Recommendations that summarized Mala's claims and urged the District Court to reject all of them. Judge Sanchez adopted these recommendations and explained his reasoning in an eight-page opinion.

This appeal followed. Mala argues that the District Court made three reversible errors. First, the court failed to accommodate Mala as a pro se litigant. Second, it improperly denied his request for a jury trial. Third, it erroneously adopted the magistrate's recommendations. We consider and reject these arguments in turn.4

II

Mala first argues that the District Court did not give appropriate consideration to his status as a pro se litigant. Specifically, he claims that the District Court should have provided him with a pro se manual—a manual that is available to pro se litigants in other districts in the Third Circuit and throughout the country. We conclude that pro se litigants do not have a right to general legal advice from judges, so the District Court did not abuse its discretion by failing to provide a manual.

According to Mala, [t]here is comparatively little case law regarding the responsibility of courts to provide information and assistance to the pro se party.” Appellant's Br. at 7. A more accurate statement is that there is no case law requiring courts to provide general legal advice to pro se parties. In a long line of cases, the Supreme Court has repeatedly concluded that courts are under no such obligation. See, e.g., McKaskle v. Wiggins, 465 U.S. 168, 183–184, 104 S.Ct. 944, 79 L.Ed.2d 122 (1984) (“A defendant does not have a constitutional right to receive personal instruction from the trial judge on courtroom procedure. Nor does the Constitution require judges to take over chores for a pro se defendant that would normally be attended to by trained counsel as a matter of course.”); McNeil v. United States, 508 U.S. 106, 113, 113 S.Ct. 1980, 124 L.Ed.2d 21 (1993); Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 834 n. 46, 95 S.Ct. 2525, 45 L.Ed.2d 562 (1975).

The Supreme Court revisited this line of cases nearly a decade ago. In Pliler v. Ford, 542 U.S. 225, 124 S.Ct. 2441, 159 L.Ed.2d 338 (2004), the Court rejected the idea that district courts must provide a specific warning to pro se litigants in certain habeas cases. It concluded that [d]istrict judges have no obligation to act as counsel or paralegal to pro se litigants.” Id. at 231, 124 S.Ct. 2441. After all, a “trial judge is under no duty to provide personal instruction on courtroom procedure or to perform any legal ‘chores' for the defendant that counsel would normally carry out.” Id. (quoting Martinez v. Court of Appeal of Cal., Fourth Appellate Dist., 528 U.S. 152, 162, 120 S.Ct. 684, 145 L.Ed.2d 597 (2000)) (quotation marks omitted). Because of this general rule, courts need not, for example, inform pro se litigants of an impending statute of limitation. See Outler v. United States, 485 F.3d 1273, 1282 n. 4 (11th Cir.2007) ([N]o case has ever held that a pro se litigant should be given actual notice of a statute of limitations.”).

The general rule, then, is that courts need not provide substantive legal advice to pro se litigants. Aside from the two exceptions discussed below, federal courts treat pro se litigants the same as any other litigant. This rule makes sense. Judges must be impartial, and they put their impartiality at risk—or at least might appear to become partial to one side—when they provide trial assistance to a party. See Pliler, 542 U.S. at 231, 124 S.Ct. 2441 (“Requiring district courts to advise a pro se litigant ... would undermine district judges' role as impartial decisionmakers.”); Jacobsen v. Filler, 790 F.2d 1362, 1364 (9th Cir.1986); see also Julie M. Bradlow, Comment, Procedural Due Process Rights of Pro Se Civil Litigants, 55 U. Chi. L.Rev. 659, 671 (1988) ([E]xtending too much procedural leniency to a pro se litigant risks undermining the impartial role of the judge in the adversary system.”). Moreover, this rule eliminates the risk that judges will provide bad advice. See Pliler, 542 U.S. at 231–32, 124 S.Ct. 2441 (noting that warnings and other legal advice “run the risk of being misleading themselves”); see also Robert Bacharach & Lyn Entzeroth, Judicial Advocacy in Pro Se Litigation: A Return to Neutrality, 42 Ind. L.Rev. 19, 42 (2009) ( [G]iving legal advice is prohibited by multiple canons of judicial conduct.”).

To be sure, some cases have given greater leeway to pro se litigants. These cases fit into two narrow exceptions. First, we tend to be flexible when applying procedural rules to pro se...

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