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Dec 2009
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December 01, 2009

Ashcroft v. Iqbal: The New Standard in Federal Pleadings

Gone are the days of Conley v. Gibson, which allowed a claim to survive a motion to dismiss “unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.1 Instead, the United States Supreme Court has revamped the pleading standard to require a heightened burden on plaintiffs in two ways. First, a court no longer must accept as true a plaintiff's allegations in the complaint regarding legal conclusions. Second, the complaint must state "a plausible claim for relief" to survive a motion to dismiss.2 Whether a stated claim is plausible, requires a plaintiff to plead sufficient facts to "permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct."3

The Supreme Court first proclaimed this new heightened pleading standard two years ago in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly.4 In Twombly, the Court held that the district court properly dismissed a class action complaint alleging violations of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).5 Specifically, the Court held that a plaintiff's allegations must sufficiently plead facts which allow a court to draw reasonable inferences that a defendant is actually liable for the wrongful conduct.6 This standard requires a plaintiff to do more than simply recite the elements for a specific claim and instead requires a plaintiff to plead specific facts supporting each element.7 Conclusory allegations are no longer sufficient.

The Court's decision was based on Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2), which requires a plaintiff to provide facts "showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." After Twombly, "formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action" does not meet this requirement.8 Instead, Rule 8 requires a plaintiff to plead factual allegations as opposed to a simple assertion that the plaintiff is entitled to relief. A complaint must provide a defendant with fair notice of the claims nature as well as the grounds on which the claim is based.

This year, the Supreme Court confirmed the new pleading standard in Ashcroft v. Iqbal.9 In Iqbal, the plaintiff was arrested in connection with the September 11, 2001 investigation. While detained, the plaintiff was secluded from other individuals and was kept indoors for 23 hours a day. During the one hour he was allowed outside, the plaintiff was kept in handcuffs and leg irons and was escorted by four officers. As a result of these conditions, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against federal officials and federal corrections officers, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft and Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI. The plaintiff alleged that the defendants violated the First and Fifth Amendments. Mueller and Ashcroft filed a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) claiming that the plaintiff’s complaint failed to state a claim. The district court denied the motion, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed the lower courts and held that the plaintiff's complaint failed to state a claim. Specifically, the Court held that "labels and conclusions" and "naked assertion[s] devoid of further factual enhancement" are insufficient under Rule 8.10 Further, "the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice."11 In other words, though "legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations."12

Applying these standards to the plaintiff's complaint in Iqbal, the Court held that under Rule 8, the plaintiff's complaint failed to state a claim.13 The Court first determined that certain allegations in the complaint were not entitled to the assumption of truth. Specifically, the plaintiff pleaded that Ashcroft and Mueller "knew of, condoned, and willfully and maliciously agreed to subject him to harsh conditions of confinement as a matter of policy, solely on account of his religion, race, and/or national origin and for no legitimate penological interest."14 The Court held that this allegation was devoid of factual support and instead amounted "to nothing more than a formulaic recitation of the elements of a constitutional discrimination claim."15 Consequently, the Court held that such a conclusory assertion is not entitled to the assumption of truth.

The next step in the Court's analysis was to determine whether the allegations "plausibly suggest an entitlement to relief."16 Specifically, the Court determined whether discrimination was the plausible conclusion from the plaintiff's allegations. The plaintiff alleged that Ashcroft and Mueller "arrested and detained thousands of Arab Muslim men as part of its investigation of the events of September 11."17 The Court held that this allegation does not plausibly lead to the conclusion that discrimination motivated Ashcroft's and Mueller's actions. Instead, the Court noted that "a legitimate policy directing law enforcement to arrest and detain individuals because of their suspected link to the attacks would produce a disparate, incidental impact on Arab Muslims, even though the purpose of the policy was to target neither Arabs nor Muslims."18 Therefore, the plaintiff's complaint, as against Mueller and Ashcroft, failed to plausibly suggest he was entitled to relief.

The plaintiff argued that the Court's Twombly holding should be limited to anti-trust actions. But the Court rejected this argument and held that the heightened standard delineated in Twombly was applicable to all claims.19 "Though Twombly determined the sufficiency of a complaint sounding in antitrust, the decision was based on our interpretation and application of Rule 8. That Rule in turn governs the pleading standard 'in all civil actions and proceedings in the United States district courts.'"20 Because of this, the defense attorney in any civil action should thoroughly review the plaintiff's complaint and ensure that the complaint sufficiently pleads the facts along with the elements for the cause of action.

The plaintiff next argued that, instead of dismissing the complaint at this stage, the better approach was to provide for limited factual discovery to determine the veracity of the claims. But the Court rejected this approach, holding that because the complaint itself was "deficient under Rule 8, [the plaintiff] is not entitled to discovery, cabined or otherwise."21

The Court reversed the lower courts' opinions and held that the plaintiff's complaint failed to sufficiently state a claim. It then remanded the case back to the Second Circuit so that the appellate court could determine whether to send the case back to the district court to allow the plaintiff to file an amended complaint.22 So, as a practical matter, what does the Court's holding mean? In my own practice, the change has significantly affected products liability actions. Before Twombly and Iqbal, I often reviewed complaints which simply stated that a product was "defective and unreasonably dangerous in its design, manufacture, and warnings" and that this "defect caused injury to the plaintiff." This was stated with no explanation as to what defect the plaintiff claimed existed in the product or how the alleged defect caused the injury. Instead, only after extensive discovery had occurred would the defendant finally have a clear idea as to what was the plaintiff's claimed defect. Because of the old standard, it was easy for a plaintiff to simply file a claim and hope discovery "proved" that a defect existed. In the aftermath of Twombly and Iqbal, however, plaintiffs must develop and research their claims before filing suit. In their complaint, plaintiffs must articulate what alleged defect they claim exists and provide factual support for their claims.

In sum, a defendant now has a significant opportunity to prevail on groundless and unsupported claims before incurring the oppressive costs of discovery. The new standard also encourages plaintiffs to file better-researched and well-thought out complaints. If a complaint fails to sufficiently plead the necessary facts to support the claim, then the plaintiff risks having the complaint dismissed on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.

Endnotes

1355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957).

2Ashcroft v. Iqbal, __ U.S. __; 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1950 (2009).

3Id.

4550 U.S. 544 (2007).

5Id. at 570.

6Id. at 556.

7Id. at 555.

8Id.

9 ___ U.S. ___; 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009).

10Id. at 1949 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557).

11Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

12Id. at 1950.

13Id. at 1950-1951.

14Id. at 1951 (internal citations omitted).

15Id. 1951.

16Id.

17Id. (internal citations omitted).

18Id. at 1951.

19Id. at 1953.

20Id. at 1953 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 554 and Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 1).

21Id. at 1954.

22Id.

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