Tuesday, March 29, 2016
My latest article, The Rise and Fall of Plausibility Pleading?, has just been published in the Vanderbilt Law Review. It builds on some of my earlier work on pleading (here and here), focusing on the Supreme Court’s post-Iqbal decisions on pleading standards (e.g., Johnson v. City of Shelby; Wood v. Moss; Matrixx Initiatives, Inc. v. Siracusano). Here’s the abstract:
The Supreme Court's 2007 decision in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly and its 2009 decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal unleashed a torrent of scholarly reaction. Commentators charged these decisions with adopting a new pleading regime, "plausibility pleading," that upended the notice-pleading approach that had long prevailed in federal court. Whether a complaint could survive a motion to dismiss — it was argued — now depends on whether the court found the complaint plausible, allowing courts to second-guess a complaint’s allegations without any opportunity for discovery or consideration of actual evidence. Lower courts began to cite Twombly and Iqbal at a remarkably high rate, and empirical work revealed their effect on both dismissal rates and litigant behavior.
Although Twombly and Iqbal were troubling on many levels, the rise of a newly restrictive form of plausibility pleading was not inevitable. There was — and still is — a path forward that would retain the notice-pleading approach set forth in the text of the Federal Rules themselves and confirmed by pre-Twombly case law. This Article describes this reading of Twombly and Iqbal, and explains how more recent Supreme Court pleading decisions are consistent with this understanding. It is crucial, however, that these post-Iqbal decisions and the approach to pleading they reflect receive the same attention that accompanied Twombly, Iqbal, and the rise of plausibility pleading. Otherwise the narrative that Twombly and Iqbal compel a more restrictive pleading standard may become further entrenched, compounding the adverse effects of those problematic decisions.
Wednesday, December 2, 2015
Professor Alexander Reinert's empirical study of Iqbal, entitled Measuring the Impact of Plausibility Pleading, has now been published in 101 Va. L. Rev. 2117 (2015). Professor Reinert earlier posted the article on SSRN.
In the United States, modern civil procedure began in 1938 with the promulgation of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. From then, until very recently, the notice pleading standard – emphasizing simplicity and brevity in pleadings over technicality – was held up as an example of the Rule’s commitment to adjudicating the merits of every claim and avoiding premature and wasteful disputes that often had little to do with merits. In Bell Atlantic v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, announced in 2007 and 2009, the United States Supreme Court revisited the notice pleading standard, announcing that “plausibility pleading” must now be the standard for assessing whether a complaint’s allegations are sufficient to justify moving to discovery and merits adjudication. This Article offers a comprehensive analysis of the impact of the plausibility pleading standard on resolutions of motions to dismiss in almost 4200 cases from 15 different judicial districts, representing all 12 general jurisdiction circuit courts of appeal. Relying on data obtained from all published and unpublished opinions in these districts for the years 2006 and 2010, this study provides the most detailed analysis to date of the impact that plausibility pleading and other variables have had on the resolutions of motions to dismiss in civil cases.
The data reported here suggest that many prior studies have failed adequately to capture the full impact of Iqbal and Twombly on the resolution of motions to dismiss in federal court. First, this Article provides data showing that dismissals of employment discrimination and civil rights cases have risen significantly in the wake of Iqbal. These results remained significant even after controlling for potential confounding factors. Second, the data also suggest that certain factors interact with the plausibility standard to influence the resolution of a motion to dismiss, including perhaps most importantly the institutional status of the plaintiff and defendant. Individuals have fared poorly under the plausibility regime, at least when compared to corporate and governmental agents and entities. These effects remained significant even after controlling for several potentially confounding variables. Finally, by analyzing data on the progress of cases after a motion to dismiss has been adjudicated, this Article shows that the advent of heightened pleading has not resulted in higher quality claims.
Along with providing an important descriptive account of the impact that plausibility pleading has had on the course of federal litigation, this Article suggests two heretofore unexplored bases for questioning the wisdom of the transition initiated by Twombly and solidified by Iqbal. First, while one should not be shocked by the observation that civil rights and employment discrimination claims suffer under the plausibility pleading regime, one should still be troubled by it given the historical role that federal courts have played in such cases. Second, to the extent that the plausibility regime has exacerbated inequality in the courts between individual litigants on one hand and corporate and governmental entities on the other, without increasing overall case quality, there should be wider agreement that such a change is to be lamented.
Wednesday, September 9, 2015
Luke Meier (Baylor University Law School) has posted on SSRN his latest article, The Reviewability of Denied Twombly Motions, forthcoming in The University of Cincinnati Law Review.
This article argues in favor of permitting appellate review of a denied Twombly motion when a defendant appeals an adverse final judgment. With regard to denied summary judgment motions, the question of post-judgment appellate review has caused considerable confusion in the last few years. This article aims to prevent this confusion from developing with regard to denied Twombly motions and, in the process, to clear up the existing uncertainty with regard to appellate review of denied summary judgment motions. The critical step towards this goal is distinguishing between “mootness” and “forfeiture.” Because a denied Twombly motion is not rendered moot by subsequent proceedings in the district court, and because a defendant does not forfeit appellate review of a denied Twombly motion, appellate courts should assess the propriety of the denial of a Twombly motion in an appeal from a final judgment. This conclusion might appear, on first impression, outrageous. But it is the proper conclusion under existing rules governing the availability of appellate review.
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, 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.”
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.
Saturday, November 15, 2014
On Monday we covered Johnson v. City of Shelby, a per curiam Supreme Court decision on pleading that summarily reversed the Fifth Circuit. Here’s some of the coverage of that decision from this past week:
- City of Shelby: New SCOTUS Pleadings Opinion in Visual Context (Colin Starger)
- SCOTUS Per Curiam Procedure Decisions Raise (At Least) As Many Questions As They Settle (Michael Dorf)
- Twombly’s Remorse (Barry Barnett)
Monday, November 10, 2014
We’ve been watching Johnson v. City of Shelby, a case raising some important questions on pleading standards that the Supreme Court relisted several times. Today the Court issued a per curiam decision summarily reversing the Fifth Circuit. It appears following today’s order list (beginning at page 11 of the .pdf file). Here are some highlights:
Plaintiffs below, petitioners here, worked as police officers for the city of Shelby, Mississippi. They allege 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. Charging violations of their Fourteenth Amendment due process rights, they sought compensatory relief from the city. Summary judgment was entered against them in the District Court, and affirmed on appeal, for failure to invoke 42 U. S. C. §1983 in their complaint.
We summarily reverse. 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. See Advisory Committee Report of October 1955, reprinted in 12A C. Wright, A. Miller, M. Kane, R. Marcus, and A. Steinman, Federal Practice and Procedure, p. 644 (2014 ed.) (Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “are designed to discourage battles over mere form of statement”); 5 C. Wright & A. Miller, §1215, p. 172 (3d ed. 2002) (Rule 8(a)(2) “indicates that a basic objective of the rules is to avoid civil cases turning on technicalities”).
Our decisions in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U. S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U. S. 662 (2009), are not in point, for they concern the factual allegations a complaint must contain to survive a motion to dismiss. A plaintiff, they instruct, must plead facts sufficient to show that her claim has substantive plausibility. Petitioners’ complaint was not deficient in that regard. Petitioners 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). For clarification and to ward off further insistence on a punctiliously stated “theory of the pleadings,” petitioners, on remand, should be accorded an opportunity to add to their complaint a citation to §1983. See 5 Wright & Miller, supra, §1219, at 277–278 (“The federal rules effectively abolish the restrictive theory of the pleadings doctrine, making it clear that it is unnecessary to set out a legal theory for the plaintiff’s claim for relief.” (footnotes omitted)); Fed. Rules Civ. Proc. 15(a)(2) (“The court should freely give leave [to amend a pleading] when justice so requires.”).
Thursday, August 7, 2014
In Walsh v. U.S. Bank, N.A., No. A13-0742 (Aug. 6, 2014), the Minnesota Supreme Court held:
[W]e now decline to engraft the plausibility standard from Twombly and Iqbal onto our traditional interpretation of Minn. R. Civ. P. 8.01. We decline to do so despite the fact that the relevant text of Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) is identical to the text of Minn. R. Civ. P. 8.01. . .
. . . A claim is sufficient against a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim if it is possible on any evidence which might be produced, consistent with the pleader’s theory, to grant the relief demanded.
Hat tip: James Pielemeier
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Now, I know you were just sayng to yourself, "Why hasn't another article about the empirical study of Twombly and Iqbal come out recently? I'm having withdrawal symptoms." Rejoice -- here it is.
Professor Jonah Gelbach of the University of Pennsylvania Law School has published in the most recent issue of the Stanford Journal of Complex Litigation (and earlier posted on SSRN) his article Can the Dark Arts of the Dismal Science Shed Light on the Empirical Reality of Civil Procedure?
Empirical questions in civil procedure are too important to be answered as if motivated people weren’t involved in the legal system. Parties don’t conduct their primary behavior that way, lawyers don’t plead or brief that way, and judges don’t decide cases that way. We ought not to study litigation that way, either. This paper is a step toward a better alternative.
Empirical researchers must take seriously the fact that litigation involves human beings, who are motivated and have agency. To make this point concrete, I first step outside the realm of civil procedure and illustrate the importance of accounting for human agency in empirical research. I use the canonical problem of demand estimation in economics to show how what I call the “urn approach” to empirical work fails to uncover important empirical relationships by disregarding behavioral aspects of human action.
I then show how these concerns permeate a prominent empirical issue in contemporary civil procedure debates: the changes in pleading policy wrought by Bell Atlantic, Corp. v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal. Revisiting my own earlier work, I embed the question of how changes in the pleading standard will affect case outcomes in a broad behavioral framework that takes parties’ agency seriously. In the process, I address recent critiques, both of the very idea of using behavioral frameworks to understand civil litigation policy changes, and of my use of real-world litigation data collected by the Federal Judicial Center. These criticisms implicate all aspects of the process of empirical research: the notion of using a behavioral framework at all, the type of data needed, and the question of how best to estimate effects that the behavioral framework indicates are important, given the data. As I show, these criticisms are straightforwardly (if verbosely) refuted on the merits.
The alternative to taking seriously the behavioral context created by the civil justice system — what has occurred so far in too much of the debate over Twombly and Iqbal — is, as one critic of early 20th-century empirical research by legal scholars once put it, “a mindless amassing of statistics without reference to any guiding theory whatsoever.” To do better, we will need to take behavior seriously in studying civil litigation.
Friday, July 25, 2014
In a 4-3 decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has adopted the plausibility pleading standard of the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly. Data Key Partners v. Permira Advisers LLC, No. 2012AP1967 (Wis. July 23, 2014).
The court reversed the Wisconsin Court of Appeals' ruling that plaintiffs had alleged sufficient facts to show breach of fiduciary duty against the defendants. Wisconsin's pleading rule requires a complaint to contain "[a] short and plain statement of the claim, identifying the transaction or occurrence or series of transactions or occurrences out of which the claim arises and showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Wis. Stat. § 802.02(1)(a).
The court held that "[p]laintiffs must allege facts that, if true, plausibly suggest a violation of applicable law," stating that "Twombly is consistent with our precedent." The court also asserted that Twombly had overruled Conley v. Gibson. (In my view, however, Twombly only overruled Conley's "no set of facts" standard, not the entire opinion.)
Justice Shirley Abramson, for two other justices, dissented.
I would follow Wisconsin law and conclude that as a general rule, parties need not plead specific facts at the motion-to-dismiss phase. In the instant case, although the plaintiffs raised the business judgment rule in their complaint, the plaintiffs also set forth sufficient facts to plead around the rule and provide notice to the defendants of the claim being alleged.
. . . Under Twombly/Iqbal, federal district courts have increased the rate at which they grant motions to dismiss.
No Wisconsin case has adopted the rule as stated in Twombly and Iqbal. Twombly was not argued or briefed in the instant case. The majority opinion relies on the Twombly heightened pleading standard without any briefing or argument. I have written before that this court should give counsel the opportunity to develop arguments before the court in the adversarial system. . . .
Friday, June 20, 2014
SCOTUS: IRS Summons Challenger Must Show Facts Giving Rise to Plausible Inference of Improper IRS Motive
The IRS examined the tax returns of Dynamo Holdings Limited Partnership, and issued summonses to the respondents, "four individuals associated with Dynamo whom the Service believed had information and records relevant to Dynamo’s tax obligations. None of the respondents complied with those summonses."
The IRS instituted proceedings in District Court to compel the respondents to comply with the summonses. The IRS submitted an investigating agent’s declaration that the testimony and records sought were necessary to “properly investigate the correctness of [Dynamo’s] federal tax reporting” and that the summonses were “not issued to harass or for any other improper purpose.” In reply, the respondents pointed to circumstantial evidence suggesting that the IRS had “ulterior motives” for issuing the summonses: to “punish [Dynamo] for refusing to agree to a further extension of the applicable statute of limitations,” and to “evad[e] the Tax Court[’s] limitations on discovery.” Accordingly, the respondents asked for an opportunity to question the agents about their motives.
The District Court ordered the respondents to comply with the summonses. The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding that a simple “allegation of improper purpose,” even if lacking any “factual support,” entitles a taxpayer to “question IRS officials concerning the Service’s reasons for issuing the summons.”
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Kagan, vacated the Eleventh Circuit's opinion and remanded, holding that the Eleventh Circuit had applied an incorrect legal standard:
A person receiving an IRS summons is . . . entitled to contest it in an enforcement proceeding. . . . As part of the adversarial process concerning a summons’s validity, the taxpayer is entitled to examine an IRS agent when he can point to specific facts or circumstances plausibly raising an inference of bad faith. Naked allegations of improper purpose are not enough: The taxpayer must offer some credible evidence supporting his charge. But circumstantial evidence can suffice to meet that burden; after all, direct evidence of another person’s bad faith, at this threshold stage, will rarely if ever be available. And although bare assertion or conjecture is not enough, neither is a fleshed out case demanded: The taxpayer need only make a showing of facts that give rise to a plausible inference of improper motive. That standard will ensure inquiry where the facts and circumstances make inquiry appropriate, without turning every summons dispute into a fishing expedition for official wrongdoing. . . . But that is not the standard the Eleventh Circuit applied. . . . [T]he Court of Appeals viewed even bare allegations of improper purpose as entitling a summons objector to question IRS agents.
United States v. Clarke, No. 13-301 (U.S. June 19, 2014).
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Today the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Wood v. Moss, with Justice Ginsburg authoring the opinion for the Court. As covered earlier here, Wood v. Moss is a Bivens case brought by plaintiffs who had been protesting against President George W. Bush during his 2004 visit to a restaurant in Oregon. The plaintiffs claim that the defendants, who were secret service agents, violated their First Amendment rights by moving them farther away from the President than a similar group that was expressing support for the President.
In today’s decision, the Court unanimously rules that the defendants are protected by qualified immunity. To most, this conclusion did not come as a surprise. For many proceduralists, however, the case was of particular interest because of its potential effect on pleading standards in the wake of Twombly and Iqbal. Here’s how Justice Ginsburg puts things in footnote 5: “In ruling on a motion to dismiss, we have instructed, courts ‘must take all of the factual allegations in the complaint as true,’ but ‘are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.’ Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).” And on page 12: “[U]nder the governing pleading standard, the ‘complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’ Iqbal, 556 U.S., at 678 (internal quotation marks omitted).”
Part II.B of the opinion contains the most detailed discussion of qualified immunity and its requirement that a plaintiff’s claim be based on a right that was “clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.” [p.12]. Among other things, Justice Ginsburg writes:
“No decision of which we are aware ... would alert Secret Service agents engaged in crowd control that they bear a First Amendment obligation to ensure that groups with different viewpoints are at comparable locations at all times. ... No clearly established law, we agree, required the Secret Service to interfere with even more speech than security concerns would require in an attempt to keep opposing groups at roughly equal distances from the President. And surely no such law required the agents to attempt to maintain equal distances by prevailing upon the President not to dine at the Inn. [pp.14-15 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted)]”
Part III of the opinion addresses a potentially distinct theory of liability, and that part of the opinion may prove more instructive on pleading standards generally. Part III begins: “The protesters allege that, when the agents directed their displacement, the agents acted not to ensure the President’s safety from handguns or explosive devices. Instead, the protesters urge, the agents had them moved solely to insulate the President from their message, thereby giving the President’s supporters greater visibility and audibility.” [pp.15-16] Justice Ginsburg does recognize the possibility that “clearly established law proscribed the Secret Service from disadvantaging one group of speakers in comparison to another if the agents had no objectively reasonable security rationale for their conduct, but acted solely to inhibit the expression of disfavored views.” [p.16 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted)] She rejects this theory, however, noting that a map of the relevant area that the plaintiffs had included in their complaint “undermines the protesters’ allegations of viewpoint discrimination as the sole reason for the agents’ directions”; the map “corroborates that, because of their location, the protesters posed a potential security risk to the President, while the supporters, because of their location, did not.” [p.16]
Although the plaintiffs “make three arguments to shore up their charge that the agents’ asserted security concerns are disingenuous,” [p.16] Justice Ginsburg is not persuaded. In particular, she writes:
“[A]s the map attached to the complaint shows, see supra, at 4, when the President reached the patio to dine, the protesters, but not the supporters, were within weapons range of his location. See supra, at 14. Given that situation, the protesters cannot plausibly urge that the agents had no valid security reason to request or order their eviction.” [p.18 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted)]
One of the many questions that has vexed courts, commentators, and practitioners after Twombly and Iqbal is how to evaluate allegations about a defendant’s intent. Although the 2002 decision in Swierkiewicz v. Sorema suggested a very lenient approach to such allegations, many have read Iqbal – which also involved allegations of discriminatory animus – to require a stricter approach. At first glance, Wood does not seem to provide a conclusive resolution. Although the Court rejects the plaintiffs’ viewpoint-discrimination theory, Justice Ginsburg relies heavily on the fact that material in the complaint itself – the map of the relevant area – “undermines the protesters’ allegations of viewpoint discrimination as the sole reason for the agents’ directions.” [p.16] This is not likely be a regular occurrence in cases involving discriminatory intent. Another feature of Wood may be even more important. Given Justice Ginsburg’s reasoning regarding qualified immunity, the plaintiffs would have had to show that “the agents had no objectively reasonable security rationale.” [p.16] Part III of the opinion, therefore, did not hinge on the premise that viewpoint discrimination played no role at all in the defendants’ decision; rather – as a matter of the substantive law governing the defendants’ qualified immunity defense – the presence of an objectively reasonable security rationale doomed the plaintiffs’ claims even if viewpoint discrimination also played a role.
PS: Readers may have noticed Adam Liptak’s recent New York Times article describing how Supreme Court opinions can be revised by the Justices after they are initially issued – sometimes years later. For what it’s worth, then, I’m including in this post not only the relevant link to the opinion on the Supreme Court’s website, but also a downloaded version of the opinion as it originally appeared there this morning:
Corina D. Gerety and Brittany K.T. Kauffman, of The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver, have published a Summary of Empirical Research on the Civil Justice Process: 2008-2013.
An explanation of its Scope provides, "This report provides a synthesis of the relevant empirical research on the civil justice process released from 2008 to 2013. In addition to IAALS research, it contains studies conducted by a variety of organizations and individuals, including the Federal Judicial Center, the National Center for State Courts, the RAND Corporation, and others. We, the authors, refer to 39 studies in total, representing a relatively even mix of case file/docket studies and surveys/interviews."
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
Alex Reinert (Cardozo) has published on SSRN a draft of his article, The Burdens of Pleading, which will be published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. Here is the abstract:
The changes to pleading doctrine wrought by Bell Atlantic v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal have been criticized on many grounds. As many commentators have noted, the plausibility pleading doctrine introduced by these cases is consistent with other procedural reforms that have the effect of limiting access of putative plaintiffs to federal civil adjudication. In this Article, I argue that Twombly and Iqbal are more than just the most recent examples of anti-litigation reforms. Plausibility pleading asks federal courts – for the first time since the advent of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure – to use their "judicial experience and common sense" to assess the likelihood of a claim’s success prior to discovery. But the very characteristics of the procedural changes leading up to Twombly and Iqbal – fewer trials, an increase in private adjudication such as arbitration, pervasive secrecy, and increased use of summary judgment – also make it far less likely that judges will have the experience necessary to reliably apply plausibility pleading. In the absence of relevant information, judges are likely to fall back on heuristics that will take them farther from an accurate decision on the merits. The result, I contend –one that is confirmed by the empirical data available to date – will be an increased dismissal of cases that is essentially random rather than merit-based.
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Here’s the transcript of today’s Supreme Court oral argument in Wood v. Moss. It’s a Bivens case brought by plaintiffs who had been protesting against President George W. Bush during his visit to a restaurant in Oregon. They allege that the defendants, who were secret service agents, engaged in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination by moving them farther away from the President than a similar group that was expressing support for the President.
The crux of the defendants’ position is that they are protected by qualified immunity, but the case could have ramifications for pleading standards more generally. The argument included quite a bit on Iqbal, and there were several questions about the discovery that would likely ensue if the claims were allowed to move forward.
PS: Here is an analysis of the oral argument by Lyle Denniston (SCOTUSblog).
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Expanding their earlier map of SCOTUS pleading cases, Scott Dodson and Colin Starger have now produced a seven-minute video visually demonstrating the relationship between the cases. You can watch this interesting endeavor here.
A more traditional form of the paper will appear this spring in the Federal Courts Law Review.
Friday, February 14, 2014
The NBA starts its all-star break today. The U.S. Supreme Court is on break as well, and it too is right at the midpoint of the season. The Term has already been quite active on the civil procedure and federal courts front, with decisions on personal jurisdiction, Younger abstention, transfer of venue, the Class Action Fairness Act, and appellate jurisdiction. And there’s more on the horizon:
- Walden v. Fiore (venue and personal jurisdiction);
- Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund (class actions);
- Wood v. Moss (on qualified immunity and, perhaps, pleading standards more generally);
- Highmark v. Allcare and Octane Fitness v. Icon Health (two cases on awarding attorneys’ fees in patent cases);
- Petrella v. MGM (laches in civil copyright claims)
- Executive Benefits Insurance Agency v. Arkison (Article III and bankruptcy proceedings);
- UBS Financial Services v. Union de Empleados de Muelles (Rule 23.1’s pre-suit demand requirement)
Why do we pay so much attention to these cases? For most court-watchers, it’s not because there is a strong interest in whether a Massachusetts gravel supply company underpaid its benefit fund obligations. Rather, it’s because of what the Supreme Court’s decisions mean going forward. Because of stare decisis, judicial decisions can prospectively bind future courts just as an Act of Congress or a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure can. In many areas of procedure, Supreme Court decisions may be the most significant lawmaking acts we’re going to see.
With that in mind, I thought I would share a link to my recent article, To Say What the Law Is: Rules, Results, and the Dangers of Inferential Stare Decisis, 99 Virginia L. Rev. 1737 (2013). The article was driven in part by the struggle to figure out the precedential effect of controversial Supreme Court decisions like Wal-Mart and Iqbal. But I try to tackle more generally the question of what parts of a judicial decision should actually create binding law, and in what way. Here’s the abstract:
Judicial decisions do more than resolve disputes. They are also crucial sources of prospective law, because stare decisis obligates future courts to follow those decisions. Yet there remains tremendous uncertainty about how we identify a judicial decision’s lawmaking content. Does stare decisis require future courts to follow the rules stated in a precedent-setting opinion? Or must future courts merely reconcile their decisions with the ultimate result of the precedent-setting case? Although it is widely assumed that a rule-based approach puts greater constraints on future courts, two recent Supreme Court decisions — Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes and Ashcroft v. Iqbal — turn this conventional wisdom on its head. In both cases, what the Court said about the governing rules was not inherently controversial, and would leave courts with considerable flexibility going forward. But what the Court did in applying those rules — the ultimate results in Wal-Mart and Iqbal — could be very destabilizing if stare decisis mandates consistency with those results in future cases.
This article assesses competing approaches to stare decisis, and argues that the lawmaking content of a judicial decision should be only the rules that the court states in deciding the case. While the end result may be instructive, enlightening, or valuable for any number of reasons, it should not create binding obligations on future courts as a matter of stare decisis. A rules-only approach is an unconventional position (even those who favor rule-based stare decisis typically presume that consistency with results is also required). But it strikes the optimal balance. To infer binding obligations from results alone creates a risk that — as with Wal-Mart and Iqbal — future courts will be forced to intuit more radical legal changes than the precedent-setting court actually embraced. Put simply, a judicial decision should create binding law only to the extent that it says what the law is. Unless and until new legal rules are declared (whether by the judiciary in later cases or by legislation), courts should be free to operate within the existing legal framework, without being required to reconcile their decisions with the mere results of earlier ones.
Thanks again to the editors at the Virginia Law Review, who did a fantastic job on the article, and to the many colleagues who gave me such terrific feedback and suggestions.
Thursday, February 13, 2014
Victor D. Quintanilla has published Critical Race Empiricism: A New Means to Measure Civil Procedure, 3 U.C. Irvine L. Rev. 187 (2013).
From the Introduction:
In this Article, I first discuss why social psychology offers a fertile source for both theory and methods to explore CRT. Drawing on social-psychological theory and methods, I then conduct an empirical legal study of judicial decision making under the U.S. Supreme Court's new, highly subjective pleading standard. Although one of my previous projects yielded similar findings, I have updated my empirical legal analysis in three ways. First, I have extended the time horizon from eighteen months to twenty-four months, increasing the sample size of cases I analyze, and thereby increasing the power of my study. Second, I now compare and contrast how White and Black judges apply both the old and new pleading standards. This comparison offers a baseline to evaluate whether the new pleading standard produces differences in how White and Black judges decide motions to dismiss Black plaintiffs' claims of race discrimination. Third, to assess whether the race of federal judges predicts how they apply the new pleading standard, I conducted multiple and sequential regressions, which pitted judges' race against their political ideology.
This enhanced empirical legal study supports the conclusion that the new pleading standard serves as a context for aversive racism, implicit bias, and lay theories of racism to operate against stereotyped-group members who assert claims of discrimination. Under notice pleading, White and Black judges decided discrimination claims similarly; yet under plausibility pleading, White and Black judges decided these claims differently. White judges were much more likely to dismiss the claims of stereotyped-group members, even after controlling for political ideology. This strongly suggests that, because plausibility pleading requires judges to draw on their “judicial experience and common sense,” federal judges are drawing on their lay theories of discrimination, their priors, their schemas, and their stereotypes when judging the plausibility of discrimination claims. These findings also suggest that implicit bias is operating against Black plaintiffs. This empirical study is but one of many means to harness empirical methods to explore CRT. The study, moreover, illustrates how infusing CRT with empirical legal methods illuminates implicit bias in legal decision making and the process by which race and law interact.
Saturday, February 1, 2014
Suja Thomas' recent article, How Atypical, Hard Cases Make Bad Law (See, e.g., the Lack of Judicial Restraint in Wal-Mart, Twombly, and Ricci), was posted on SSRN some months ago, but has just been published at 48 Wake Forest L. Rev. 989.
Despite the oft-mentioned goal of judicial restraint, courts have few effective tools to realize it. Stare decisis provides some guidance on whether legal change should be made where there is relevant precedent, but courts do not always conduct a stare decisis analysis. And for questions for which precedent and thus stare decisis is not relevant, beyond malleable tools, including those of statutory and constitutional interpretation, the courts have no guidance on whether to make legal change. Accordingly, many scholars have argued that judicial restraint is rhetoric not reality. Possibly unsurprisingly then, several recent high profile Supreme Court cases including Twombly, Wal-Mart, and Ricci, have exhibited what may be characterized as a lack of judicial restraint. While to date each case has been criticized for the specific legal change made in the case, an unrecognized lack of restraint ultimately ties all of the cases together. In the cases, the Court made legal change motivated by extraordinary circumstances, and no doctrine of judicial restraint prevented the change. This Article argues for a new doctrine of judicial restraint — the “atypical doctrine” — that the Court should not make legal change in cases, like Twombly, Wal-Mart, and Ricci, where legal change is motivated by oddball or atypical facts, and the change would affect typical cases. The Article contributes to the important question of when the Court should make legal change by beginning a discussion on how judicial restraint can be strengthened.