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)
Friday, November 14, 2014
Now available on the Courts Law section of JOTWELL is an essay by Jim Pfander entitled How Lower-Court Precedent Affects Supreme Court Precedent. Jim reviews Aaron Bruhl’s recent article, Following Lower-Court Precedent, 81 U. Chi. L. Rev. 851 (2014).
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.”).
Friday, November 7, 2014
Whether, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(m), a district court has discretion to extend the time for service of process absent a showing of good cause, as the Second, Third, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits have held, or whether the district court lacks such discretion, as the Fourth Circuit has held?
You can find links to the cert. stage briefing (as well as the merits briefs as they come in) at SCOTUSblog’s Chen case file.
Tuesday, November 4, 2014
Michael J. Gerhardt and Michael Ashley Stein have posted on SSRN their article, The Politics of Early Justice, Lower Court Federal Judicial Selection 1789-1861, forthcoming in Iowa Law Review.
Almost every commentary on the history of the selection of federal judges presumes that there was some prior golden era in which national political leaders focused primarily on the merit of individual nominees and were not unduly swayed by partisan politics or ideology. Numerous constitutional scholars — and national leaders — have therefore roundly criticized the modern day judicial selection process, citing unprecedented delays and a low percentage of approval of federal court nominees as evidence that the system has broken down. They have argued that the ways in which senators, as well as presidents, have handled lower court nominations in the modern era have deviated from how the nation’s first chief executives and the first few Senates handled such nominations. Yet, there is one glaring omission in almost all commentaries on disputes over judicial selection over the past few decades — the absence of any substantiation of an earlier, so-called golden era, in which there actually was general deference within the Senate to presidents’ nominations to federal district and appellate judgeships. Even the classic work on federal judicial selection by the late Kermit Hall begins its analysis of federal judicial selection in 1825, disregarding nearly forty years of prior practices in the field and reinforcing the received but unsubstantiated assumptions about how judicial nominations to lower courts fared beforehand.
This Article is the first to make a serious comprehensive historiography of federal judicial selection from 1789-1861 in the United States. Following six years of archival and secondary source research, we identified each of the lower court nominations made by presidents from George Washington through James Buchanan and then tracked the Senate’s actions on each of their nominations through both archival and secondary sources. Further, we identified the criteria employed in the first seven decades of judicial nominations as well as the outcomes of, and grounds for, the Senate’s proceedings for all of these nominations. We believe that the results of this unprecedented study are significant because they provide a window into an era of early federal judicial selection that has been virtually ignored by both commentators and national political leaders. While we identified some antiquated practices, such as several of the earliest presidents’ judicial nominees actually declining judgeships after the Senate had confirmed their nominations, we found other patterns of practice that are similar to contemporary developments. Among the most significant of these latter patterns are the facts that: every antebellum president took political considerations into account in making nominations; all antebellum presidents, with the exception of William Henry Harrison, had most of their judicial nominations confirmed by the Senate; and three antebellum presidents — George Washington, Martin Van Buren, and James Polk — enjoyed 100% of their judicial nominations confirmed by the Senate. Yet, political parties, particularly in times of divided government, often split along party lines in judicial confirmation proceedings, and several judicial nominations in the antebellum period failed because of opposition based on the particular nominees’ ideologies or past political decisions. In short, there was no golden era of judicial nominations but rather different eras in which politics, in different ways, shaped federal judicial selection.
Monday, November 3, 2014
Over on the Courts Law section of JOTWELL is an essay by Steve Vladeck entitled Appealing to Injustice. Steve reviews Bill Richman and Bill Reynolds' recent book, Injustice on Appeal: The United States Courts of Appeals in Crisis (Oxford Univ. Press 2013).