Friday, June 5, 2009
Let me first note a couple of areas of agreement that I have with DDL’s defense. I agree that the decisions are attempts to be “practical and common-sense.” Reasonable people can disagree about the proper pleading standard, and I do not think that the standards of Twombly and Iqbal are unreasonable. To borrow from AEDPA, I think they are wrong, but I do not think they are unreasonable. I think DDL is right that they are borne of practicality, of a perceived need to reduce discovery pressures.
I also agree that discovery has significant problems. DDL is right that discovery costs can be unduly high and abusive (although I’d suggest that it’s not always the plaintiff that “weaponizes” discovery and not always the defendant that bears the costs), and that there may be room for reforms to the rules to alleviate those burdens.
I might also agree (though I’d want to bone up on my tort law knowledge first) that the allegation that “the defendant violated FDA regulations” without stating the regulation that was violated or what the defendant did should be inadequate under Rule 8. The same might be said for a complaint that simply alleges “defective design.” But I doubt that such allegations would have survived even pre-Twombly because they fail to give proper notice to the defendant.
Finally, I agree that there are two sides to the coin. We should worry about imposing difficult pleading burdens on plaintiffs. But DDL is right that we should worry too about frivolous lawsuits that impose significant costs on defendants. The question, of course, is how to do both.
Having exchanged pleasantries, though, let me now engage our disagreements. There are several, but I'll highlight two of the most fundamental.
First, I disagree that “[t]he only way to avoid discovery . . . is to win a motion to dismiss.” Justice Stevens, I think, does a nice job in his Twombly dissent explaining how a district court has ample authority to structure and limit discovery to avoid undue burdens while still allowing the plaintiff access to the crucial information she needs. DDL quotes extensively from the Twombly majority opinion, which in turn quotes from a Just Easterbrook article on discovery abuse written in 1989, arguing that district court control of discovery costs is largely ineffective. But that has not always been the case in my own experience defending large corporations against lawsuits. And it certainly does not ring true in theory, particularly after the amendments to the Federal Rules made after 1989 that limit discovery and give more supervisory control to the judge. I see no reason why (and my anecdotal experience suggests the contrary) judges/magistrates cannot effectively measure the costs and benefits to the requester and the burdens to the defendant. (Isn’t that what Rule 26 requires anyway?) And, even if only a rough estimation is possibly, the district court has the authority to narrow the discovery scope, to allow limited discovery at first as a “test” production, and to order cost-shifting where appropriate to alleviate the defendant’s burden. In short, the idea that discovery costs are always a problem that cannot be addressed within the confines of the existing discovery rules is misplaced.
The discovery rules may still not be up to the task of controlling undue costs in some cases, but that suggests that we ought to consider how to fix the problem by reforming discovery rather than by resort to raising the pleadings bar. After all, the discovery costs and burdens apply (and may apply unfairly) even when the claim has merit. So, I think that if folks have problems with discovery, the discussion ought to properly focus (at least initially) on discovery changes, not pleadings changes.
But even if reforms to alleviate discovery burdens must go beyond the discovery rules, it’s not clear to me that they must focus on Rule 8 pleading. Other options might include tinkering with Rule 12(e), Rule 11, or fee-shifting rules. I’m not necessarily advocating these options—I just mean to say that I’m not convinced that raising Rule 8 pleading standards best achieves the amelioration of discovery costs that DDL seeks. If discovery costs are really the elephant in the room, then let’s deal with the elephant.
Second, DDL does not appreciate fully the downside to raising the pleading standards. The failure to plead a plausible claim is not necessarily an indication that the claim lacks merit. Nevertheless, Twombly, at least, appears to proceed on that premise, calling the complaint at issue there “largely groundless,” having no “reasonably founded hope” of revealing supporting evidence in discovery. And DDL appears to assume that as well, calling the “hallmark of a meritorious case is that it’s factually supported from the get go.” In some cases, that might be true. But it is not always true, particularly in the kinds of cases where the plausibility standard is likely to be invoked the most—discrimination and conspiracy cases. In those cases, the information often necessary to meet the plausibility standard is largely in the hands of the defendants. The problem is one, as Randy Picker described it, of information asymmetry. The point is that, in many cases, just because the plaintiff doesn’t have a fact in her possession doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. And, as a result, erroneously equating the failure to plead plausibility with meritlessness will result in fewer meritorious cases filed, fewer meritorious cases surviving to discovery, and fewer injuries resulting from wrongful conduct being redressed. Neither the Court nor DDL comes to terms with this unjust result.
UPDATE: I now see that Howard Wasserman also has a response up on Prawfslaws here.