Robert A. Bonavito, CPA PC

Bonavito v. Harvard: The Greatest Pro Se Victory in 50 Years, Part 1

Pro se is Latin for “in one's own behalf”. The right to appear pro se in a civil case in Federal Court is defined by statute 28 U.S.C. § 1654.

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States for Pro Se

The court system has a reputation of disrespecting Pro se litigants, but there are many hardworking Judges and support staff trying to treat them fairly.

This video goes into some detail about an article that appeared throughout the country discussing one of the greatest Pro Se victories over a powerful and well-funded defendant. Read the article.

This is a real case and can be verified by looking at the courts electronic filing websites which include all the briefs and rulings.

The best way to learn something is to immerse yourself in it. The best way to learn about the legal system is to handle a court case yourself. When someone represents themselves in court this is called Pro se.

One of the most successful Pro se litigation matters in the United States involved one of the most powerful institutions in the country, Harvard University. I will use this complex case to help you get a better understanding of what you will face as a Pro se litigant.

First some background:

Why would someone want to represent themselves in court?

  1. To better understand the legal system
  2. Lawyers are too expensive
  3. Lawyers do not always deliver quality services
  4. The case is complex, and lawyers may not fully understand the critical issues
  5. If a lawyer won’t take the case because they risk alienating other potential clients
  6. The case is simple and a Pro se litigant can do it themselves

The reason this case was pro se was because many lawyers refused to take the knowing would lose Harvard as a potential client and many of the other elite universities in the State of Massachusetts. In addition, in the State of Massachusetts many judges are alumni and have extensive interactions with Harvard. Studies have also proven that there is a cognitive bias against pro se litigants in the court system which was is proven in a study in 2020 by the American psychological Association. These factors meant that it was impossible to have a quality law firm take on the case.

When it comes to litigation the most important thing is to have a good understanding of your case and the facts.

In this case the facts were quite simple

The plaintiff entered Harvard in late 2016 after passing the required exams and paying the required fees. As can be seen in the official Harvard transcript clearly all of the requirements for the degree were obtained and this fact is not in dispute. However, the student was denied his degree based on emails from the admission department that indicated that Harvard was denying the degree based on the plaintiff’s age, gender and ethnicity. While this is perfectly okay to do in the United States if you are not accepting billions of dollars of aid from the federal, state and local governments. This is the case with Harvard, they do accept billions of dollars in aid with the understanding they will not discriminate.

With these facts established many law firms did not want to take on the case because it was clear-cut.

Goal of this litigation

Stop discrimination at elite institutions by age, gender or ethnicity. This was the most important case involving education since Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, which stopped racial segregation in the public school system.

Obtain the degree that was earned.

Stop elite educational institutions by admitting students primarily based on students’ family net income rather than their performance within the University’s classrooms.

Crucial component of the litigation

The most important aspect of the litigation for Harvard was to move the court case up to Massachusetts so that it could be dismissed by friendly judges. From the plaintiff’s standpoint the most important aspect was to get to discovery, keep the case within the state of New Jersey and have a jury trial.

 The court system has a strong cognitive bias against pro se litigants, this has been proven by many studies including one by the American Psychological Association in 2020

Preparation for court

As someone who is not a lawyer the most important thing you can do is purchase a service such as Lexis Nexus and learn how to use case law which is critical to the judges. In order to do this the plaintiff took a Harvard legal course on law and how to research, write briefs and use case law. There are also many books and publications that can be found online and videos utilizing YouTube

Know your opponent

The opponent was one of the most powerful institutions not only in Massachusetts but the country. They had connections with attorneys, law firms, the court system and judges throughout Massachusetts and a $50 billion war chest.

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