Thursday, May 21, 2015
Alabama Same-Sex Marriage Litigation Update: Federal Judge Grants Class Certification and Issues (but Stays) Class-Wide Injunction
Things had been fairly quiet in the litigation over Alabama’s same-sex marriage ban (here’s where things stood back in March). Today, U.S. District Judge Callie Granade made two important rulings in the Strawser case. In one order, she certified both a plaintiff class and a defendant class under Rule 23(b)(2). She wrote:
Plaintiffs’ motion to certify a Plaintiff Class consisting of all persons in Alabama who wish to obtain a marriage license in order to marry a person of the same sex and to have that marriage recognized under Alabama law, and who are unable to do so because of the enforcement of Alabama’s laws prohibiting the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples and barring recognition of their marriages is GRANTED.
Plaintiffs’ motion to certify a Defendant Class consisting of all Alabama county probate judges who are enforcing or in the future may enforce Alabama’s laws barring the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples and refusing to recognize their marriages is GRANTED.
In another order, Judge Granade concluded—yet again—that Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. Accordingly, she granted the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction; but she also ordered that “because the issues raised by this case are subject to an imminent decision by the United States Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges and related cases, the above preliminary injunction is STAYED until the Supreme Court issues its ruling.”
Monday, May 18, 2015
1. Whether a case becomes moot, and thus beyond the judicial power of Article III, when the plaintiff receives an offer of complete relief on his claim.
2. Whether the answer to the first question is any different when the plaintiff has asserted a class claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, but receives an offer of complete relief before any class is certified.
3. Whether the doctrine of derivative sovereign immunity recognized in Yearsley v. W.A. Ross Construction Co., 309 U.S. 18 (1940), for government contractors is restricted to claims arising out of property damage caused by public works projects.
You can see all of the cert-stage briefing, and keep track of the merits briefs as they come in, at SCOTUSblog.
Tuesday, May 12, 2015
Brooke Coleman has a post today over on PrawfsBlawg called "Civil Rule 23 -- To Amend or Not to Amend?"
She summarizes three of the “conceptual sketches” that the Rule 23 Subcommittee of the Civil Rules Advisory Committee is currently considering.
Thursday, April 30, 2015
We covered yesterday the Supreme Court’s order adopting the latest round of amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The full packet of material that the Supreme Court transmitted to Congress pursuant to the Rules Enabling Act was posted this afternoon on the U.S. Courts website. Here’s the portion dealing with the Civil Rules amendments:
If you’ve been following this batch of amendments as it has worked its way through the various committees, you may notice that the adopted rules include a couple of changes to the proposed committee notes (hat tip: Valerie Nannery).
The first involves the abrogation of Rule 84 and the deletion of the Forms that had long appeared in the FRCP Appendix. Many had expressed concern about this change because of its possible effect on pleading standards due to the elimination of Form 11, Form 18, and others. The committee note for Rule 84 now contains this sentence: “The abrogation of Rule 84 does not alter existing pleading standards or otherwise change the requirements of Civil Rule 8.”
The second change relates to the amendment to Rule 4(m), which reduces the default deadline for serving process from 120 days after filing the complaint to 90 days after filing the complaint. The committee note had stated: “Shortening the presumptive time for service will increase the frequency of occasions to extend the time for good cause.” The new version deletes the last three word of this sentence, which now reads: “Shortening the presumptive time for service will increase the frequency of occasions to extend the time.” This seems to recognize that the text of Rule 4(m) does not require a showing of good cause in order to extend the default deadline for service—although there remains some disagreement in the lower courts on this issue. (Readers may recall this Term’s Chen case, where the Court had granted a pro se cert. petition challenging the Fourth Circuit’s approach to Rule 4(m) extensions, only to dismiss it after Mr. Chen failed to file a brief and the Court’s “[a]dditional efforts to contact petitioner” were “unsuccessful.” Mr. Chen then resurfaced, represented by former Solicitor General Paul Clement, filing a petition for rehearing asking the case to be reinstated; but this too was unsuccessful.)
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Today the Supreme Court adopted the recent batch of proposed amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Here is the order setting forth the amendments and submitting them to the House and Senate.
Absent congressional action, these amendments will become effective Dec. 1, 2015.
Note that today's order from the Court does not include a "redline" of the new changes or the committee notes that accompany them. Here are the redline and notes that were included in the Standing Committee report:
UPDATE: Valerie N (see comments below) reports that the Court has asked for two changes to the advisory committee notes. The entire package of materials--including the final version of the committee notes--is now available here.
Today the Supreme Court wrapped up its oral arguments for the Term. There are lots of cases still to be decided, of course. And the Court should be taking action this week (Friday is the deadline) on the latest batch of proposed amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
Also in the coming weeks, the Court will be considering an interesting petition for certiorari out of the Seventh Circuit on summary judgment. Estate of Brown v. Thomas (No. 14-1139) presents an important question that federal courts have been struggling with ever since Celotex and the 1986 summary judgment trilogy:
What initial burden does Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 impose on a moving party that seeks summary judgment on the ground that the non-moving party cannot prove its case?
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
The Sedona Conference has posted a "Commentary on Rule 34 and Rule 45 'Possession, Custody, or Control.'” The commentary suggests uniform principles as to the meaning of "possession, custody, or control" as used in Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 34 and 45.
The commentary can be downloaded without charge here.
Monday, March 23, 2015
The Advisory Committee on Civil Rules has released the 640-page agenda for its April 9-10, 2015 meeting.
The agenda includes many items that are of interest. The following is far from an exhaustive list:
- In the Draft Minutes for the Committee's October 30, 2014 meeting (p. 39):
"Judge Campbell reported that the Forms Working Group in the Administrative Office has already begun deliberating what response they might make if the proposed abrogation of Rule 84 and the Rule 84 Forms is approved by the Supreme Court and Congress. They have begun to think about new forms that might be created. This Committee will keep in touch with the Working Group, perhaps by means as formal as appointing a liaison member."
- The Report of the Rule 23 Subcommittee considers the following topics. Some contain "sketches" of possible amendments to the rule on class actions (p. 243):
- Settlement approval criteria (p. 246)
- Settlement class certification (p. 253)
- Cy pres treatment (p. 263)
- Dealing With Objectors (p. 272)
- Rule 68 Offers and Mootness (p. 277)
- Issue Classes (p. 281)
- Notice (p. 284)
- The Discovery Subcommittee reports on "Requester Pays Issues." (p. 333)
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Has Conley v. Gibson really been overruled? (And did the Fourth Circuit just tee up the next big SCOTUS case on pleading?)
Over at PrawfsBlawg, Dave Hoffman has a post up on the empirical impact of Twombly and Iqbal. That issue has been hotly debated, but there’s no question that federal courts are continuing to struggle with what those decisions mean for how judges should decide Rule 12(b)(6) motions. A particularly difficult question has been the vitality of pre-Twombly Supreme Court precedents like Conley v. Gibson and Swierkiewicz v. Sorema.
These issues were on display last Friday (the 13th, by the way) as a divided Fourth Circuit panel affirmed the dismissal of an employment discrimination claim in McCleary-Evans v. Maryland Department of Transportation (No. 13-2488). The majority opinion by Judge Niemeyer rejected the plaintiff’s reliance on Swierkiewicz, emphasizing that the Supreme Court in Swierkiewicz had “applied a pleading standard more relaxed than the plausible-claim standard required by Iqbal and Twombly.” In dissent, Judge Wynn argued that the majority had improperly “ignore[d] the factual underpinnings of the Swierkiewicz holding, looking solely to the Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Iqbal to guide its decision,” and noted that lower federal courts “have no authority to overrule a Supreme Court decision no matter how out of touch with the Supreme Court’s current thinking the decision seems.”
Twombly and Iqbal are problematic decisions in many respects, and diagnosing their flaws is important. Even more important, though, is the question of how courts should be applying Twombly and Iqbal, especially in relation to pre-Twombly Supreme Court case law. Properly understood, Twombly and Iqbal can and should be read to preserve the notice-pleading approach that the Supreme Court repeatedly employed during the half-century before Twombly. I’ve laid out this argument here and here, and explained how the basic framework Iqbal articulated can be applied in a way that is consistent with notice pleading and pre-Twombly precedent. This understanding of Twombly and Iqbal is confirmed by more recent Supreme Court pleading decisions—especially the 2014 decision in Johnson v. City of Shelby—which cast doubt on the presumption that the Court’s pre-Twombly case law even is “out of touch with the Supreme Court’s current thinking.”
I may have more posts on pleading as March marches on, but for now I wanted to address the one—and only—instance where the Twombly and Iqbal opinions directly call into question any aspect of pre-Twombly case law. That, of course, was Twombly’s “retirement” of Conley’s statement that “a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim 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.”
Wednesday, March 11, 2015
The litigation over Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriage has taken many twists and turns in these early months of 2015, but the main action has been in two arenas: the Alabama Supreme Court and U.S. District Judge Callie Granade’s courtroom in the Southern District of Alabama. Of course, everyone will be watching the U.S. Supreme Court as well, where Obergefell v. Hodges will be argued next month. And it was the Supreme Court’s February order refusing to stay Judge Granade’s initial injunction that began the latest round of activity. Here’s where things stand:
The Alabama Supreme Court said its piece last week, granting a writ of mandamus ordering all Alabama probate judges to stop granting marriage licenses. The merits of that ruling are certainly open to debate—both on the key constitutional issue and the standing/jurisdiction issue—but there are a few things to keep in mind going forward. First, the mandamus action was brought by two groups opposing same-sex marriage (acting as “relators” for the State of Alabama) against the Alabama probate judges. No individuals or couples who might wish to challenge Alabama’s same-sex marriage ban were parties to that proceeding, so as a matter of preclusion the ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court does not prevent them from seeking relief in federal court.
Second, the court ordered Alabama probate judges not to issue new same-sex marriage licenses (and it seems to have had that effect), but it ignored the relators request to order Alabama probate judges “not to recognize any marriage licenses issued to same sex couples.” In doing so, the court avoided one potential direct conflict with the federal judiciary, insofar as Judge Granade had previously ordered Mobile County probate judge Don Davis to issue marriage licenses to four same-sex couples in the Strawser case. Indeed, the Alabama Supreme Court’s order asked Davis to “advise” it “as to whether he is bound by any existing federal court order regarding the issuance of any marriage license other than the four marriage licenses he was ordered to issue in Strawser.” His deadline was last Thursday (3/5), but he’s asked for more time to respond. [Update: Today the Alabama Supreme Court posted on its website an order confirming that Judge Davis was also subject to its mandamus ruling, but only after determining for itself (whether correctly or not) that Judge Granade’s injunction did not extend beyond those four licenses.]
Saturday, February 28, 2015
I wanted to post a quick blurb about my testimony yesterday before the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice of the House Judiciary Committee in the hearing on The State of Class Actions Ten Years After the Class Action Fairness Act.
Here is the Prepared Statement I submitted 48 hours in advance of the hearing.
Not surprisingly given Republicans' control of the House, of the four witnesses testifying at the hearing, I was the only one offered by the Democrats. The others were representing the US Chamber, DRI-the Voice of the Defense Bar, and Skadden Arps.
Continuing the proud tradition of "tort reformers" in spinning corporations' huge legal victories as tragic defeats, one would have never known that Wal-Mart v. Dukes, AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, and American Express v. Italian Colors (among many other corporate victories in the Supreme Court, the Advisory Committee, and state legislatures) had ever happened. Instead, listening to the Republican-sponsored witnesses and members of the Committee and Subcommittee, it seemed instead that democracy itself, and even the world economy, were threatened by legions of liberal federal judges granting class certifications in cases in which no class members had been injured. (Yes, the new urban myth of corporate interests is the so-called "no injury" class.)
As a former litigator, it was agony sitting there and not being able to object ("Mischaracterizes the evidence!" "Assumes facts not in evidence!" "Irrelevant!") to some of the things coming out of people's mouths.
It was also depressing to calculate how much I would have earned at the going hourly rate of an attorney with my background and experience in an urban market IF ANYONE HAD BEEN PAYING ME -- which of course, no one was. (My dear law school, St. Thomas, reimbursed my measly travel expenses.)
Somehow, I doubt that the other three witnesses were appearing pro bono.
But someone has to stand up for rights of injured, cheated, and discriminated-against Americans and the plaintiffs' lawyers who represent them. I am honored to have tried my best to do so.
Friday, February 20, 2015
Suja Thomas and Dawson Price have posted on SSRN a draft of their article, How Atypical Cases Make Bad Rules: A Commentary on the Rulemaking Process, which will be published in the Nevada Law Journal. Here’s the abstract:
Commentators have criticized the rulemaking process for decades. Legal scholarship has focused primarily on challenging its constitutionality, questioning whether different actors make better rulemakers, and arguing that some entities have too much power and others have too little. Other commentators have focused on the tools that should be employed by rulemakers when evaluating proposals, focusing on the importance of empirical studies to support rule changes and the role of bias in the formulation of certain rules. In this symposium article, we add to this scholarship by arguing that advisory committees should refrain from proposing and adopting rule amendments that are motivated by atypical cases. Such rules will also affect typical cases, creating bad law for typical cases because the rules were not formulated for such cases. The article describes the thesis of a previous article on how atypical cases make bad law and applies the framework to a current amendment to change the scope of discovery, showing atypical cases make bad rules.
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued its decision in Roach v. T.L. Cannon Corp. The opinion begins:
“This appeal presents the question of whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 (2013), overruled the law of this Circuit that class certification pursuant to Rule 23(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure cannot be denied merely because damages have to be ascertained on an individual basis. The United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (McAvoy, J.) concluded that Comcast permits certification under Rule 23(b)(3) only when damages are measurable on a classwide basis, and denied Plaintiffs-Appellants’ motion for class certification.
“We hold that Comcast does not mandate that certification pursuant to Rule 23(b)(3) requires a finding that damages are capable of measurement on a classwide basis.”
And from later in the opinion:
“The Supreme Court did not foreclose the possibility of class certification under Rule 23(b)(3) in cases involving individualized damages calculations. Our reading of Comcast is consistent with the Supreme Court’s statement in Comcast that its decision turned upon 'the straightforward application of class-certification principles.' 133 S. Ct. at 1433. Our reading is also consistent with the interpretation of those Circuits that have had the opportunity to apply Comcast.”
H/T: Perry Cooper
As we’ve been covering, there has been significant activity here in Alabama in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to stay a federal judge’s January ruling that Alabama’s prohibition on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. This post is simply to provide a repository for some of the important filings, decisions, and other documents. The links below will open the actual documents themselves, not simply links to other websites (which can sometimes succumb to “link rot”). I plan to update this page with new documents as the litigation proceeds.
- Download Searcy v. Strange Jan 23 DCT Order
- Download Strawser v. Strange Jan 26 DCT Order
- Download Searcy v. Strange Jan 28 DCT Order Clarifying Judgment
- Download Feb 3 Chief Justice Moore Memo
- Download Feb 8 Chief Justice Moore Order
- Download Feb 9 SCOTUS Order
- Download Feb 9 Statement of Alabama Attorney General
- Download Feb 9 Statement of Governor Bentley
- Download Feb 9 Statement of Mobile County Probate Judge
- Download Feb 9 Hedgepeth Complaint (SDAL)
- Download Feb 9 Searcy Motion for Contempt
- Download Feb 9 Searcy Order Denying Contempt Motion
- Download Feb 9 Strawser Motion to Amend Complaint & for Preliminary Injunction
- Download Feb 10 Strawser Order Granting Amendment & Setting Feb 12 Hearing
- Download Feb 10 Hedgepeth Order
- Download Feb 11 Emergency Petition for Writ of Mandamus
- Download Feb 11 Alabama SCT Order & Opinions
- Download Feb 12 Strawser Notice of Conflicting Authority
- Download Feb 12 Strawser Order Granting Injunction
- Download Feb 13 Alabama SCT Order & Opinions re Mandamus Petition
- Download Feb 15 Strawser Motion to Intervene
- Download Feb 17 Strawser - King Motion for Preliminary Injunction
- Download Feb 17 Strawser - Motion for Enforcement
- Download Feb 17 Strawser - Strange Opposition to Motion for Enforcement
- Download Feb 17 Strawser - Strange Opposition to Motion to Intervene
- Download Feb 17 Strawser - Reply re Motion to Intervene
- Download Feb 18 Strawser - Reply re Motion for Enforcement
- Download Feb 18 Response (King & Ragland) to Mandamus Petition
- Download Feb 20 Strawser Order Denying Motion for Enforcement
- Download Feb 20 Strawser Order Denying Motion to Intervene
- Download Feb 24 Searcy v. Davis Complaint
- Download Feb 27 Searcy v. Davis Motion to Dismiss
- Download March 3 Alabama Supreme Court Mandamus Opinion
- Download March 5 Strawser - Davis Motion to Stay
- Download March 6 Strawser Class Certification Motion
- Download March 6 Strawser Proposed Second Amended Complaint
- Download March 9 Strawser - Strange Opposition to Class Certification
- Download March 10 Alabama Supreme Court Order re Judge Davis
- Download March 13 Strawser - Davis Supplement to Motion to Stay
- Download March 16 Strawser Order Denying Davis Motion to Stay
- Download May 21 Strawser Class Certification Order
- Download May 21 Strawser Order Granting Injunction
Wednesday, February 4, 2015
We covered earlier the Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari in Chen v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore (No. 13-10400), which promised to resolve a conflict in the circuits over extensions of time to serve process under Rule 4(m). The petitioner was proceeding pro se, and on January 9 the Court dismissed the case with this order:
Petitioner has not filed a brief on the merits within 45 days of the order granting the writ of certiorari, as required by Rule 25.1. Petitioner has neither requested an extension of time nor responded to correspondence directed to the mailing address provided under Rule 34.1(f). Additional efforts to contact petitioner have been unsuccessful. The writ of certiorari is accordingly dismissed.
Mr. Clement’s eight-page submission said Mr. Chen left his New York residence last fall to make what was intended to be a short business trip to California. But while there, Mr. Chen suffered a “slip-and-fall injury” that postponed his return for more than two months.
The court filing said Mr. Chen arrived back in New York on Jan. 22 and was “surprised and dismayed” to learn the Supreme Court had accepted, and subsequently dismissed, his case.
Tuesday, February 3, 2015
We covered earlier the Supreme Court’s decision in Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Co. v. Owens, a case where cert. was granted to resolve what had to be contained in a notice of removal, only to have a 5-4 fight erupt over questions of Supreme Court jurisdiction and the proper standard of review.
Scott Gant and Christopher Hayes have now posted a piece entitled 'Dart' and Class Certification Order Jurisdiction, which argues the Dart Cherokee “also resolves uncertainty about whether the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to review a district court’s interlocutory order granting or denying class certification when the court of appeals has declined to review the order.”
Thursday, January 29, 2015
As the Supreme Court ponders the proposed FRCP discovery amendments (if approved and not vetoed by Congress, they’ll be coming soon to a federal court near you this December), a few recent postings to SSRN are worthy of note…
Steve Burbank has posted Proportionality and the Social Benefits of Discovery: Out of Sight and Out of Mind?, which will be published in the Review of Litigation. Here’s the abstract:
In this short essay, based on remarks delivered at the 2015 meeting of the AALS Section of Litigation, I use a recent paper by Gelbach and Kobayashi to highlight the risk that, in assessing the proportionality of proposed discovery under the 2015 amendments to Rule 26 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, federal judges will privilege costs over benefits, and private over public interests. The risk arises from the temptation to focus on (1) the interests of those who are present to the detriment of the interests of those who are absent (“the availability heuristic”), and (2) variables that appear quantifiable over those that do not (“the evaluability hypothesis”). I argue that the social benefits of discovery are not mere abstractions or the stuff of formal models. They are the intended fruits of conscious legislative policy. If proportionality is not to become a deregulatory tool in cases in which federal regulatory policy is implicated, judges must resist the temptation to give short shrift to those elements of the analysis that, because they are out of sight, are also out of mind, or are difficult to quantify -- in particular, social benefits.
And here is the abstract for the aforementioned article by Jonah Gelbach & Bruce Kobayashi, The Law and Economics of Proportionality in Discovery:
This paper analyzes the proportionality standard in discovery. Many believe the Advisory Committee's renewed emphasis on this standard has the potential to infuse litigation practice with considerably more attention to questions related to the costs and benefits of discovery. We discuss the history and rationale of proportionality's inclusion in Rule 26, adopting an analytical framework that focuses on how costs and benefits can diverge in litigation generally, and discovery in particular. Finally, we use this framework to understand the mechanics and challenges involved in deploying the six factors included in the proportionality standard. Throughout, we emphasize that the proportionality standard requires both difficult-to-answer positive questions and unavoidably normative judgments.
Saturday, January 24, 2015
Back at the end of last Term we covered the Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari in Gelboim v. Bank of America (No. 13-1174). This week the Court issued a unanimous opinion in Gelboim, authored by Justice Ginsburg. Here’s how she teed things up:
An unsuccessful litigant in a federal district court may take an appeal, as a matter of right, from a “final decisio[n] of the district cour[t].” 28 U.S.C. §1291. The question here presented: Is the right to appeal secured by §1291 affected when a case is consolidated for pretrial proceedings in multidistrict litigation (or MDL) authorized by 28 U.S.C. §1407?
The Court’s answer: No. Plaintiffs whose action was consolidated for pretrial MDL proceedings could still appeal the dismissal of their action, even though other cases in the MDL remained pending. It was not necessary for such plaintiffs to obtain authorization to appeal via Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(b).
In footnote 4, though, the Court reserved judgment on whether it would reach the same conclusion when cases were “combined in an all-purpose consolidation,” as opposed to an MDL consolidation for pretrial purposes only. (Not as glamorous as footnote 4 of Carolene Products, but worth keeping an eye on.)
For more, Howard Wasserman has an analysis of the opinion over at SCOTUSblog.
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
SCOTUS Decision in Teva Pharmaceuticals v. Sandoz: FRCP 52, Clear Error, and Patent Claim Construction
Today, the Supreme Court issued a 7-2 opinion in Teva Pharmaceuticals v. Sandoz, which addresses the role of Rule 52(a)’s “clear error” standard of review in the context of patent claim construction. Justice Breyer writes for the majority and Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito, writes a dissenting opinion. In addition to the link above, here is the .pdf of the opinion that was released today: Download Teva v. Sandoz
And here is the short answer, from the majority opinion:
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a)(6) states that a court of appeals “must not . . . set aside” a district court’s “[f]indings of fact” unless they are “clearly erroneous.” In our view, this rule and the standard it sets forth must apply when a court of appeals reviews a district court’s resolution of subsidiary factual matters made in the course of its construction of a patent claim.
Both opinions, however, confront the notoriously thorny distinction between fact and law, and there is an interesting discussion of whether facts relevant to claim construction are analogous to facts relevant to quintessentially “legal” endeavors like statutory interpretation. As for how this all unfolds in the patent context, just read parts II.D and III of the court’s opinion (which features one of my new favorite words: kilodalton).
The dissenting opinion begins:
Because Rule 52(a)(6) provides for clear error review only of “findings of fact” and “does not apply to conclusions of law,” Pullman-Standard v. Swint, 456 U. S. 273, 287 (1982), the question here is whether claim construction involves findings of fact. Because it does not, Rule 52(a)(6) does not apply, and the Court of Appeals properly applied a de novo standard of review. (footnote omitted).
Justice Thomas’s dissent also raises an interesting wrinkle about the extent to which the majority’s decision hinges on “stipulations” by the parties that may narrow its impact. As he writes in a footnote:
The majority argues that we are bound by petitioners’ phrasing of the question presented and by respondents’ concession at oral argument that claim construction “will sometimes require subsidiary factfinding.” Ante, at 10–11. But the parties’ stipulations that claim construction involves subsidiary factual determinations, with which I do not quarrel, do not settle the question whether those determinations are “findings of fact” within the meaning of Rule 52(a)(6). And to the extent that the majority premises its holding on what it sees as stipulations that these determinations are “findings of fact” for purposes of Rule 52(a)(6), then its holding applies only to the present dispute, and other parties remain free to contest this premise in the future.
Monday, November 17, 2014
We covered earlier the Supreme Court’s per curiam decision in Johnson v. City of Shelby summarily reversing the Fifth Circuit. It’s a short opinion—just two and a half pages—but it has some important things to say about pleading standards. Here are a few quick thoughts:
The primary issue in the case is whether the district court properly rejected the plaintiffs’ due process claim for failing to invoke 42 U.S.C. § 1983 explicitly in their complaint. The Fifth Circuit had affirmed based on a misguided line of lower court decisions finding complaints to be “fatally defective” for failing to cite § 1983. The Supreme Court’s Johnson opinion makes clear that this line of cases is wrong—a plaintiff’s failure to cite § 1983 in his or her complaint is not fatal. From page 1 of the slip opinion: “Federal pleading rules call for ‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,’ Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 8(a)(2); they do not countenance dismissal of a complaint for imperfect statement of the legal theory supporting the claim asserted.”
Nonetheless, the Court states that—on remand—the Johnson plaintiffs “should be accorded an opportunity to add to their complaint a citation to § 1983.” [Slip Op., p.3] This is admittedly somewhat puzzling. Why would there be any need to amend the complaint to include something that is not required? One possible explanation is that the plaintiffs had asked the district court for leave to amend the complaint, but the court refused and the Fifth Circuit affirmed that refusal. It is valuable, therefore, for the Supreme Court to reemphasize—with its citation to Rule 15(a)(2)—the Federal Rules’ instruction that “[t]he court should freely give leave when justice so requires.” [See Slip Op., p.3] In any event, the Supreme Court simply insists that the plaintiffs have an opportunity to add a citation to § 1983 to their complaint (as they requested). Given the Supreme Court’s conclusion that no such citation is required, it would be entirely proper for the Johnson plaintiffs and the lower court to agree that no amendment to the complaint is necessary in order for the plaintiffs’ claims to be resolved on the merits.
The most intriguing part of the Supreme Court’s Johnson opinion, however, may be the paragraph discussing Twombly and Iqbal. The Court initially notes that Twombly and Iqbal do not resolve whether the plaintiffs were required to cite § 1983 in the complaint, because Twombly and Iqbal “concern the factual allegations a complaint must contain to survive a motion to dismiss.” [Slip Op., p.2 (court’s emphasis)] But the Court goes on to say that the complaint in Johnson was “not deficient” under Twombly and Iqbal because the plaintiffs “stated simply, concisely, and directly events that, they alleged, entitled them to damages from the city. Having informed the city of the factual basis for their complaint, they were required to do no more to stave off threshold dismissal for want of an adequate statement of their claim. See Fed. Rules Civ. Proc. 8(a)(2) and (3), (d)(1), (e).” [Slip Op., pp.2-3]
Can a plaintiff really comply with Twombly and Iqbal merely by “stat[ing] simply, concisely, and directly events that, they alleged, entitled them to damages from the city”? Yes. Keep in mind: even Iqbal recognized that non-conclusory allegations must be accepted as true at the pleadings phase, without any inquiry into whether the truth of those allegations is plausibly suggested by other allegations. One of many frustrating aspects of the Iqbal majority opinion was that it failed to explain what made the crucial allegations in the Iqbal complaint too conclusory to be accepted as true. But I’ve argued elsewhere that one way to make sense of Twombly and Iqbal—in light of the text and structure of the Federal Rules and Supreme Court precedent that remains good law—is through a transactional approach to pleading. That is, an allegation is conclusory when it fails to identify adequately the acts or events that entitle the plaintiff to relief from the defendant. It is only when an allegation obscures the underlying real-world events with mere legal conclusions that it should be disregarded as conclusory under Iqbal.
On this point, it’s particularly interesting that the plaintiffs’ claim in Johnson was “that they were fired by the city’s board of aldermen, not for deficient performance, but because they brought to light criminal activities of one of the aldermen.” [Slip Op., p. 1] Such a claim—like the claim at issue in Iqbal—hinges on the defendants’ intent. Properly understood, Iqbal does not hold that an allegation is “conclusory” simply because it alleges that a defendant acted with a certain state of mind. Rather, such an allegation should be accepted as true—including its description of the defendant’s intent—as long as it provides a basic identification of the liability-generating events or transactions. The Supreme Court’s reasoning in Johnson is consistent with this approach, and confirms that Twombly and Iqbal need not be read to impose heightened burdens on plaintiffs at the pleadings phase.
All in all, Johnson v. City of Shelby is a short-but-sweet per curiam opinion that not only gets the right result on the primary issue presented, but also reflects a more sensible approach to pleading generally. Lower courts should take note.