Stricter Pleading Standard in Civil Cases Affirmed

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Stricter Pleading Standard in Civil Cases Affirmed: Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009)

Building on its decision in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 1955 (2007), the Supreme Court recently held that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a), which sets out the rules for federal civil pleadings, requires “more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” 

In 2004, Javaid Iqbal, a Pakistani Muslim convicted, jailed, and deported on charges of fraud and conspiracy, filed a so-called Bivensclaim against federal officials, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller. Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971).  Iqbal alleged that his constitutional rights were violated when federal officials subjected him to harsh conditions of confinement due to his religion, race, and/or national origin.  Iqbal’s civil complaint alleged constitutional violations grounded in conduct meted out by lower-ranking officials who acted under the direct auspices of policies designed by Attorney General Ashcroft and adopted and executed by FBI Director Mueller.  In the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Ashcroft and Mueller filed a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss on the grounds that Iqbal’s claim lacked sufficient factual support.  The motion was denied.  Ashcroft and Mueller then filed an interlocutory appeal with the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  The Second Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling and stated that, in accordance with the pleading standard established by Twombly, Iqbal’s claim was “plausible” on its face and possessed sufficient facts to state a claim for unlawful discrimination that could withstand the defendants’ qualified immunity defense.  The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

In Ashcroft v. Iqbal, by a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit’s decision, but declined to remand the case to the District Court so that Iqbal could enhance his deficient Bivens claim.  Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy concluded that because the District Court’s order to deny the defendants’ Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss – a prejudgment order reviewable under the collateral-order doctrine – “turned on an issue of law,” it was subject to the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction as “a final decision ‘subject to immediate appeal.’”  The Court did not decide Iqbal’s Bivensaction except to say that under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), as interpreted by the Twombly decision, it failed to state a plausible claim and therefore was not entitled to pass into the discovery phase of litigation.  Dissenting, Justice Souter argued that the Court misapplied the rules of pleading by not accepting Ashcroft’s and Mueller’s concession, concerning the fact that they had adopted and issued the “policies” in question, as a satisfactory statement of a claim.  In so doing, the dissent argued, the majority had undermined the doctrine of supervisory liability.  Justice Breyer also wrote separately in dissent to warn against interpretations of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that create “alternative case-management tools” which he believes may conflict with the Federal Rules themselves.

While Iqbal involved a rather unusual setting, that is, a Pakistani man’s civil suit against former Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller, the Supreme Court did not confine its ruling to “terrorism” cases.  The Court’s ruling gives the defense bar another avenue for seeking dismissal of a case prior to discovery by filing a motion under Rule 8(a).  Of course, even when such motions are allowed, a plaintiff is often given leave to file an amended complaint to cure the deficiencies in his original pleading.  Still, the Court’s ruling in Iqbal is advantageous to defendants.  No doubt recognizing this, various pro-plaintiff groups have started to fight back.  United States Senator Arlen Specter has already introduced a bill in the Senate designed to roll back pleading standards to the pre-Twombly days.  As of this writing, the Judiciary Committee has not yet acted on Senator Specter’s bill, currently entitled the “Notice and Pleading Restoration Act of 2009.”