The opinion of the court was delivered by: William W. Caldwell United States District Judge
The pro se plaintiff, Harry Cooper, formerly an inmate at SCI-Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, but now released, has filed a letter-motion for appointment of counsel. In this civil-rights case, Plaintiff alleges the defendants conspired to retaliate against him, in part for having successfully challenged his sentence and for filing grievances. The defendants are prison officials at SCI-Rockview, Rockview, Pennsylvania, where Plaintiff had also been incarcerated, and at Huntingdon.
In support of his motion for an attorney, Plaintiff alleges he knows little about the law, having had the assistance of jailhouse lawyers while he was imprisoned.
This is a civil action, not a criminal one. A plaintiff in a civil action has no constitutional or statutory right to appointed counsel. Montgomery v. Pinchak, 294 F.3d 492, 498 (3d Cir. 2002). Nor does the court have the authority to compel a lawyer to represent an indigent plaintiff. Tabron v. Grace, 6 F.3d 147, 153 n.1 (3d Cir. 1993). Rather, representation for an indigent is governed by 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(1) which only provides that the court "may request an attorney to represent any person unable to afford counsel," (emphasis added), not that the court can order the attorney to do so.
A district court has broad discretion under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(1) in deciding whether to seek counsel. Montgomery, 294 F.3d at 498, and the decision can be made at any point in the litigation. Id. at 503-04 ("Either the Magistrate Judge or the District Court should have recognized Montgomery's difficulties as they became increasingly apparent and, in light of them, reconsidered Montgomery's motion for appointment of counsel.").
The Third Circuit has provided guidance for the exercise of the district court's discretion. At the threshold, the court must decide whether the plaintiff's case "has some arguable merit in fact and law." Id. at 499 (quoting Parham v. Johnson, 126 F.3d 454, 457 (3d Cir. 1997)). A court need not appoint counsel "if the indigent's chances of success on the merits are extremely slim." Id. at 500 (quoting Hodge v. Police Officers, 802 F.2d 58, 60 (2d Cir. 1986))(internal quotation marks and brackets omitted).
If the plaintiff's case satisfies this initial test, the district court must consider the "Tabron factors," Montgomery, 294 F.3d at 505, although these factors are not meant to be exhaustive. Tabron, 6 F.3d at 157. The factors are:
1. the plaintiff's ability to present his or her own case;
2. the difficulty of the particular legal issues;
3. the degree to which factual investigation will be necessary and the ability of the plaintiff to pursue investigation;
4. the plaintiff's capacity to retain counsel on his or her own behalf;
5. the extent to which a case is likely to turn on credibility ...