Friday, October 29, 2010

Decision of Interest: Twombly/Iqbal in the Eleventh Circuit

Last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit issued a significant opinion on federal pleading standards in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions in Twombly and Iqbal. The case is Speaker v. U.S. Dept of Health & Human Servs. Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”), No. 09-16154, 2010 WL 4136634 (11th Cir. Oct. 22, 2010). If that caption rings a bell, it’s because the plaintiff is Andrew Speaker, whose quarantine by the CDC in 2007 garnered considerable media attention. Relying on Twombly and Iqbal, the district court dismissed Speaker’s complaint. The 11th Circuit reversed, concluding that Speaker had adequately alleged a violation of the Privacy Act (5 U.S.C. § 552a).

One element of Speaker’s claim was that the CDC, by disclosing Speaker’s medical information, failed to fulfill its record keeping obligation under the Privacy Act. As to this element, the 11th Circuit reasoned (emphasis in original):

Plaintiff Speaker has pleaded enough factual content to “nudge[] [his] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S. Ct. at 1974. Importantly, Speaker’s allegations are not barren recitals of the statutory elements, shorn of factual specificity. See id. at 555, 127 S. Ct. at 1964-65 (stating that “a plaintiff’s obligation to provide grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do” (quotation marks and brackets omitted)).

Rather, Speaker alleges what the CDC disclosed; namely, “personally identifiable information,” including information relating to his “medical history and his testing and treatment for tuberculosis.” Am. Compl. 13 ¶ 81. Moreover, he alleges when the CDC disclosed this information: namely, “during the time frame of said public press conferences.” Am. Compl. ¶ 83. Speaker’s Amended Complaint narrows the time frame of the CDC’s initial disclosures to a short period in late May 2007. Speaker also expressly identifies one news organization to whom disclosure was made; namely, the Associated Press, which he claims received the leaked information between May 29 and May 31. Id.14 Importantly, Speaker has also alleged with factual specificity how the CDC came into possession of this information. Even the CDC does not dispute that it had the information that Speaker alleges was impermissibly disclosed. And there is no doubt that some entity, or its employees, disclosed Speaker’s identity, since not even the CDC contends that Speaker himself revealed this information before the AP’s May 31 article.

Another element of Speaker’s claim was that the CDC intentionally disclosed his information. The 11th Circuit found that Speaker’s allegations on this element were sufficient because:

Speaker expressly alleges that the CDC’s “unauthorized disclosure” was “intentional” Am. Compl. ¶ 1; see also id. ¶ 82 (stating that improper disclosures were “a result of the deliberate actions of the CDC and its employers or agents”); id. ¶ 83 (alleging that CDC’s disclosures were “part of a media campaign directed toward Mr. Speaker”); id. ¶ 111 (stating that “[a]t all times relevant herein, the CDC acted wilfully and intentionally in connection with the aforementioned disclosures”); id. ¶ 112 (referring to CDC’s unauthorized disclosure as “intentional”).


(Hat Tip: Marjorie Silver)

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