Saturday, October 22, 2011

Under Heightened Pleading Standard, No Equal Protection Claim for Female Victims of Domestic Violence

A divided three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit on Thursday ruled in McCauley v. Chicago that the father of a victim of domestic violence had no equal protection claim against the city for failing to protect his daughter.  The case was decided on the defendants' motion to dismiss; the heightened pleading standard in Ashcroft v. Iqbal and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly played a key role in both the majority's and the dissent's analysis.

The case arose out of the shooting death of Mersaides McCauley.  McCauley was shot by her ex-boyfriend, Glenford Martinez, who was on parole for an earlier homicide and who had a history of harassing and assaulting McCauley in violation of his parole and in violation of McCauley's protection order against him.  Chicago police knew of Martinez's violations but did not issue a parole violation warrant or arrest him for violating the protection order.

McCauley's father sued in state court, alleging, among other things, an equal protection claim against the city.  The defendants removed the case to federal court and moved to dismiss.  The district court granted the motion, concluding that McCauley failed to allege an equal protection claim. 

The Seventh Circuit affirmed (although it found deep flaws in the district court's reasoning).  After reviewing the pleading requirements in Iqbal and Twombly, and two of its own rulings applying those decisions--two cases that illustrate the "factual heft required to survive a motion to dismiss after Twombly and Iqbal," op. at 10--it concluded that the plaintiff failed to plead "that the City maintained a policy, custom, or practice of intentional discrimination against a class of persons to which Mersaides belonged"--female victims of domestic violence--sufficiently to maintain a policy-or-practice claim under Monell v. Department of Social Services.  The court:

The allegations in [the complaint] do not plausibly suggest that the City maintained a policy or practice of selective withdrawal of police protection.  To the contrary, the complaint alleges that the City failed to have particularized practices in place for the special protection of domestic-violence victims.  In essence, the complaint alleges that the City failed to promulgate specific policies for this particular class of crime victims, not that the City denied this class of victims equal protection.  At most, the factual allegations in the complaint plausibly suggest the uneven allocation of limited police-protection services; they do not plausibly suggest that the City maintained an intentional policy or practice of omitting police protection from female domestic-violence victims as a class.

Op. at 14-15 (emphases in original).

Judge Hamilton dissented, with a lengthy, systematic, and scathing critique of the Iqbal "plausibility" standard.  Judge Hamilton said that Iqbal is in tension with--even conflicts with--earlier Supreme Court rulings on the pleading standard, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and the form pleadings that are a part of the FRCP, and that as a result of this tension (unresolved in Iqbal), "the lower federal court decisions seeking to apply the new 'plausibility' standard are wildly inconsistent with each other, and with the conflicting decisions of the Supreme Court."  Op. at 23.

In addition to his point-by-point comparison and critique, he also offered this especially vivid thought experiment:

Imagine that as a federal district judge, you have read Twombly and Iqbal and now must act on a motion to dismiss an equal protection complaint in which the key paragraph reads:

The educational opportunities provided by defendants for infant plaintiffs in the separate all-Negro schools are inferior to those provided for white school children similarly situated in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.  The respects in which these opportunities are inferior include the physical facilities, curricula, teaching, resources, student personnel services, access and all other educational factors, tangible and intangible, offered to school children in Topeka.  Apart from all other factors, the racial segregation herein practiced in and of itself constitutes an inferiority in educational opportunity offered to Negroes, when compared to educational opportunity offered to whites.

. . .

The paragraph . . . is, of course, taken directly from plaintiffs' amended complaint in Brown v. Board of Education. . . .  We also know that the conclusory allegation of the third sentence eventually appeared as the holding of the unanimous Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education.  Under the standards of Iqbal, however, it would be easy to argue that the plaintiffs in Brown failed to state a plausible claim for relief that could survive dismissal.

Op. at 33-34.  Judge Hamilton wrote that the majority, in extending Iqbal here, "[ran] afoul of Leatherman, Rule 9(b), and the form complaints approved by the Supreme Court and Congress as part of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure."


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