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Legal Update

US Supreme Court Decision May Impose Heightened Pleading Requirements in Federal Civil Suits

21 May 2009
Mayer Brown Legal Update

The US Supreme Court’s opinion in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, No. 07-1015 (May 18, 2009), significantly increases the factual detail required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) in order to state a claim.  Iqbal makes clear that the Court’s 2007 decision in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), tightened federal pleading standards considerably and that it requires a plaintiff to affirmatively plead specific facts that plausibly establish the defendant’s liability in order to survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

Interpreting Twombly

The federal courts have struggled to interpret the effects of Twombly on the pleading requirements of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  Twombly explicitly repudiated the instruction in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957), 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,” holding that this language conflicted with the federal rules’ requirement that a plaintiff provide “a short and plain statement of the claim, showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.”  Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2).  However, the courts have disagreed, even internally, as to whether Twombly signaled a shift from the longstanding liberal notice pleading standard to a more stringent fact pleading standard.  Compare EEOC v. Concentra Health Servs., Inc., 496 F.3d 773, 782 n.4 (7th Cir. 2007) (holding that it “seems doubtful” that Twombly “changed the level of detail required by notice pleading”) with id. at 784 (noting disagreement with “the majority’s view that [Twombly] left our notice pleading jurisprudence intact”) (Flaum, J., dissenting). 

In Iqbal, the respondent, a Pakistani citizen and Muslim, was arrested and detained in the United States in the months after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.  Iqbal filed a lawsuit against numerous federal officials, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft and former FBI Director Robert Mueller, alleging that while he was in federal custody, he had been held under harsh and restrictive conditions in a high-security prison as part of a policy of unlawful discrimination against Arab Muslim men on the basis of race, religion, and national origin.  Ashcroft and Mueller filed a motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim.  The district court denied the motion and the Second Circuit affirmed the decision.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that Iqbal’s complaint failed to provide sufficient factual detail to support his allegations against Ashcroft and Mueller.  The opinion clarifies that Twombly applies to all civil cases and imposes certain fact-pleading requirements that appreciably tighten federal pleading standards. 

Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion states that Rule 8(a)(2) “demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation” and requires that a complaint be “facially plausible”:

A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. . . . The plausibility standard is not akin to a “probability requirement,” but asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully. . . . Where a complaint pleads facts that are “merely consistent” with a defendants’ liability, it “stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of ‘entitlement to relief.’”

Iqbal, slip op. at 14 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556-57).   Thus, explained the Court, “where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged – but it has not ‘show[n] – that the pleader is entitled to relief.’”  Id. at 15 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2)).

In addition, the Court reaffirmed that “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions”:

Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice. . . . Rule 8 marks a notable and generous departure from the hyper-technical, code-pleading regime of a prior era, but it does not unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions.

Id. at 14.  Combining these principles, the Court then identified a two-pronged approach for the district courts to follow when considering a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim:

[A] court considering a motion to dismiss can choose to begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.

Id. at 15.

Utilizing this approach, the Court rejected the complaint’s allegations of Ashcroft’s and Mueller’s direct involvement in the policies that resulted in Iqbal’s detention as “conclusory and not entitled to be assumed true.”  Id. at 17.  Next, the Court considered the complaint’s factual allegations and determined that while some of the facts pled were consistent with a policy of unlawful discrimination towards Arab Muslim men, the complaint as a whole suggested more plausible, lawful explanations for the petitioners’ conduct.  Id. at 17-19.

The decision in Iqbal thus suggests that a federal court no longer need draw factual inferences in favor of the complainant if it believes that a competing interpretation is more plausible.  Although it remains to be seen whether lower federal courts will interpret Iqbal as abandoning notice pleading altogether, the opinion raises the pleading bar substantially and provides defendants with important ammunition to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

For more information about the Iqbal decision, or any other matter raised in this Client Alert, please contact Catherine A. Bernard, at .

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