New Heightened Pleading Standard of Iannachhino Reinforced

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New Heightened Pleading Standard of Iannachhino Reinforced: Tauro v. Tewksbury, Middlesex Super. Ct., C.A. No. 08-02601 (November 24, 2008)

A resident filed suit against the Town of Tewksbury for the negligence of its independent contractors in installing new sewer mains. Specifically, the resident claimed that one independent contractor struck a water line while digging for the sewer main, which caused flooding to the resident’s basement. The resident also claimed that another independent contractor negligently supervised such work on behalf of the Town.

PD &P filed a Motion to Dismiss for the Town, arguing that independent contractors do not qualify as “public employees” for which a municipality can be held vicariously liable under the plain language of G.L. c. 258, § 1. Further, the Town asserted it was immune from suit and liability under Section 10(j) because independent contractors – not the Town – caused the plaintiff’s alleged harm. While conceding its potential liability for negligently supervising contractors over which it exercises control, the Town pointed out that the plaintiff failed to plead such control or supervision in his Complaint. In fact, plaintiff specifically pled that the work was supervised by another independent contractor. The Middlesex Superior Court (Walker, J.) agreed that G.L. c. 258, § 1 does not authorize suits against a public employer for the conduct of independent contractors unless it can be shown that the Town exercised supervisory control. The Court considered plaintiff’s allegations, that another independent contractor supervised the work, as binding judicial admissions which precluded his claims against the Town and, therefore, allowed the Town’s Motion to Dismiss.

Of particular interest is Judge Walker’s careful application of the heightened pleading standard recently handed down by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) in Iannacchino v. Ford Motor Co., 451 Mass. 623 (2008). As described in the Fall 2008 issue of PD&P’s municipal newsletter, in Iannacchino the SJC adopted a heightened standard of review for complaints challenged under Mass. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). Under the prior rule, a claim “should not be dismissed . . . unless it appears beyond doubt that a plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim.” The SJC observed that, under the prior rule – which had “earned its retirement” – it was possible for wholly conclusory and speculative language to pass muster under Rule 12(b)(6). To avoid this result, the SJC followed the lead of the Supreme Court in Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), holding that a future plaintiff, to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, must plead “more than mere labels or conclusions,” and must plead sufficient facts to “bring the claims out of the realm of speculation.”

The Superior Court in this matter held the plaintiff to the Iannacchino standard, rejecting his “labels and conclusions” and dismissing his case as against the Town. This decision signals the willingness of Massachusetts’ trial courts to readily adopt and apply the Iannacchino pleading standard, which will benefit defendants and defense attorneys across the Commonwealth.