U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Allows Federal Trial Judges to Dismiss Civil Claims They Find “Not Plausible” – Ruling May Supersede Traditional Summary Judgment Standards

 

“This is a blank check for federal judges to get rid of cases they disfavor.”  …“..federal judges will now decide at the very start of a litigation whether the plaintiff’s accusations ring true, and they will close the courthouse door if they do not.”  “Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” –

 

The most consequential decision of the Supreme Court’s last term got only a little attention when it landed in May. And what attention it got was for the wrong reason.

But the lower courts have certainly understood the significance of the decision, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, which makes it much easier for judges to dismiss civil lawsuits right after they are filed. They have cited it more than 500 times in just the last two months.

“Iqbal is the most significant Supreme Court decision in a decade for day-to-day litigation in the federal courts,” said Thomas C. Goldstein, an appellate lawyer with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington.

On its face, the Iqbal decision concerned the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. The court ruled that a Muslim man swept up on immigration charges could not sue two Bush administration officials for what he said was the terrible abuse he suffered in detention.

But something much deeper and broader was going on in the decision, something that may unsettle how civil litigation is conducted in the United States. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dissented from the decision, told a group of federal judges last month that the ruling was both important and dangerous. “In my view,” Justice Ginsburg said, “the court’s majority messed up the federal rules” governing civil litigation.

For more than half a century, it has been clear that all a plaintiff had to do to start a lawsuit was to file what the rules call “a short and plain statement of the claim” in a document called a complaint. Having filed such a bare-bones complaint, plaintiffs were entitled to force defendants to open their files and submit to questioning under oath.

This approach, particularly when coupled with the American requirement that each side pay its own lawyers no matter who wins, gave plaintiffs settlement leverage. Just by filing a lawsuit, a plaintiff could subject a defendant to great cost and inconvenience in the pre-trial fact-finding process called discovery.

Mark Herrmann, a corporate defense lawyer with Jones Day in Chicago, said the Iqbal decision will allow for the dismissal of cases that would otherwise have subjected defendants to millions of dollars in discovery costs. On the other hand, information about wrongdoing is often secret. Plaintiffs claiming they were the victims of employment discrimination, a defective product, an antitrust conspiracy or a policy of harsh treatment in detention may not know exactly who harmed them and how before filing suit. But plaintiffs can learn valuable information during discovery.

The Iqbal decision now requires plaintiffs to come forward with concrete facts at the outset, and it instructs lower court judges to dismiss lawsuits that strike them as implausible.

“Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the five-justice majority, “requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.”

Note those words: Plausible. Common sense.

The old world was mechanical. A lawsuit that mouthed the required words was off and running. As the Supreme Court said in 1957 in Conley v. Gibson, a lawsuit should be allowed to go forward “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.” Things started to change two years ago, when the Supreme Court found a complaint in an antitrust suit implausible.

In the new world, after Iqbal, a lawsuit has to satisfy a skeptical judicial gatekeeper.

“It obviously licenses highly subjective judgments,” said Stephen B. Burbank, an authority on civil procedure at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “This is a blank check for federal judges to get rid of cases they disfavor.”

Courts applying Iqbal have been busy. A federal judge in Connecticut dismissed a disability discrimination suit this month, saying that Iqbal required her to treat the plaintiff’s assertions as implausible. A few days later, the federal appeals court in New York dismissed a breach of contract and securities fraud suit after concluding that its account of the defendants’ asserted wrongdoing was too speculative.

The judge hearing the claims of the falsely accused Duke lacrosse players has asked for briefing on whether their lawsuit against Durham, N.C., can pass muster under Iqbal. But the judge considering a case against John C. Yoo, the former Bush administration lawyer, said it could move forward despite Iqbal because the suit contained specific allegations about Mr. Yoo’s conduct in justifying the use of harsh interrogation methods.

In the Iqbal case itself, Javaid Iqbal, a Pakistani Muslim who was working as a cable television installer on Long Island, said he was subjected to intrusive searches and vicious beatings after being arrested on identity fraud charges two months after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Justice Kennedy said Mr. Iqbal’s suit against two officials had not cleared the plausibility bar. All Mr. Iqbal’s complaint plausibly suggested, Justice Kennedy wrote, “is that the nation’s top law enforcement officers, in the aftermath of a devastating terrorist attack, sought to keep suspected terrorists in the most secure conditions available.”

Justice David H. Souter, said the majority had adopted a crabbed view of plausibility and had in the process upended the civil litigation system.

In his dissent in Iqbal, Justice Souter wrote that judges should accept the accusations in a complaint as true “no matter how skeptical the court may be.”

“The sole exception to this rule,” Justice Souter continued, “lies with allegations that are sufficiently fantastic to defy reality as we know it: claims about little green men, or the plaintiff’s recent trip to Pluto, or experiences in time travel.”

But that is no longer the law. Under the Iqbal decision, federal judges will now decide at the very start of a litigation whether the plaintiff’s accusations ring true, and they will close the courthouse door if they do not.

More:

 

Javaid Iqbal, a cable television installer on Long Island, was among thousands of Muslim men rounded up after the Sept. 11 attacks. He later filed suit against John Ashcroft, the former United States attorney general, and Robert S. Mueller III, the head of the F.B.I., charging that they were responsible for policies that resulted in the abuse that he suffered in a Brooklyn detention center. His suit was rejected by the Supreme Court on May 18, 2009.

Mr. Iqbal, like others of the Muslim men rounded up, was considered to be “of high interest.” Such suspects were held in a special housing unit of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.

Mr. Iqbal said he was kept in solitary confinement at the center, denied medical care and subjected to daily body-cavity searches, beatings and extreme temperatures. He said that he was called a terrorist and a “Muslim killer,” and that he lost 40 pounds during six months in the special unit.

He eventually pleaded guilty to identity fraud and was deported to Pakistan.

Mr. Iqbal sued more than 30 officials for mistreatment based on his religion and national background. The  Supreme Court decision, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, No. 07-1015, concerned only Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Mueller.

Writing for a 5-4 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the lawsuit filed by Mr. Iqbal must be dismissed at a preliminary stage because he failed to allege a plausible link between the officials’ conduct and the abuses he said he had suffered.

Mr. Iqbal, Justice Kennedy wrote, failed to describe adequately how the actions of the two officials were connected to the mistreatment and discrimination he said he had suffered. Justice David H. Souter, writing for the dissenters, said the allegations against the two officials in Mr. Iqbal’s lawsuit were specific enough to satisfy the requirements for initiating a lawsuit.

Justice Souter added that the majority had engaged in a sort of legal sleight of hand, ignoring a concession from the government that Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Mueller would be liable were Mr. Iqbal able to prove they actually knew of unconstitutional discrimination by their subordinates and were deliberately indifferent to it.

Instead of accepting that concession, Justice Souter continued, the majority decided that even proof of such knowledge was insufficient.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

ASHCROFT, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL, et al. v. IQBAL et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the second circuit


Argued December 10, 2008—Decided May 18,No. 07–1015. 2009


Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, respondent Iqbal, a Pakistani Muslim, was arrested on criminal charges and detained by federal officials under restrictive conditions. Iqbal filed a Bivens action against numerous federal officials, including petitioner Ashcroft, the former Attorney General, and petitioner Mueller, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). See Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U. S. 388 . The complaint alleged, inter alia, that petitioners designated Iqbal a person “of high interest” on account of his race, religion, or national origin, in contravention of the First and Fifth Amendment s; that the FBI, under Mueller’s direction, arrested and detained thousands of Arab Muslim men as part of its September-11th investigation; that petitioners knew of, condoned, and willfully and maliciously agreed to subject Iqbal to harsh conditions of confinement as a matter of policy, solely on account of the prohibited factors and for no legitimate penological interest; and that Ashcroft was the policy’s “principal architect” and Mueller was “instrumental” in its adoption and execution. After the District Court denied petitioners’ motion to dismiss on qualified-immunity grounds, they invoked the collateral order doctrine to file an interlocutory appeal in the Second Circuit. Affirming, that court assumed without discussion that it had jurisdiction and focused on the standard set forth in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U. S. 544 , for evaluating whether a complaint is sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss. Concluding that Twombly’s “flexible plausibility standard” obliging a pleader to amplify a claim with factual allegations where necessary to render it plausible was inapplicable in the context of petitioners’ appeal, the court held that Iqbal’s complaint was adequate to allege petitioners’ personal involvement in discriminatory decisions which, if true, violated clearly established constitutional law.

Held:

    1. The Second Circuit had subject-matter jurisdiction to affirm the District Court’s order denying petitioners’ motion to dismiss. Pp. 6–10.

        (a) Denial of a qualified-immunity claim can fall within the narrow class of prejudgment orders reviewable under the collateral-order doctrine so long as the order “turns on an issue of law.” Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U. S. 511 . The doctrine’s applicability in this context is well established; an order rejecting qualified immunity at the motion-to-dismiss stage is a “final decision” under 28 U. S. C. §1291, which vests courts of appeals with “jurisdiction of appeals from all final decisions of the district courts.” Behrens v. Pelletier, 516 U. S. 299 . Pp. 7–8.

        (b) Under these principles, the Court of Appeals had, and this Court has, jurisdiction over the District Court’s order. Because the order turned on an issue of law and rejected the qualified-immunity defense, it was a final decision “subject to immediate appeal.” Behrens, supra, at 307. Pp. 8–10.

    2. Iqbal’s complaint fails to plead sufficient facts to state a claim for purposeful and unlawful discrimination. Pp. 11–23.

        (a) This Court assumes, without deciding, that Iqbal’s First Amendment claim is actionable in a Bivens action, see Hartman v. Moore, 547 U. S. 250 , n. 2. Because vicarious liability is inapplicable to Bivens and §1983 suits, see, e.g., Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U. S. 658 , the plaintiff in a suit such as the present one must plead that each Government-official defendant, through his own individual actions, has violated the Constitution. Purposeful discrimination requires more than “intent as volition or intent as awareness of consequences”; it involves a decisionmaker’s undertaking a course of action “ ‘because of,’ not merely ‘in spite of,’ [the action’s] adverse effects upon an identifiable group.” Personnel Administrator of Mass. v. Feeney, 442 U. S. 256 . Iqbal must plead sufficient factual matter to show that petitioners adopted and implemented the detention policies at issue not for a neutral, investigative reason, but for the purpose of discriminating on account of race, religion, or national origin. Pp. 11–13.

        (b) Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a complaint must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” “[D]etailed factual allegations” are not required, Twombly, 550 U. S., at 555, but the Rule does call for sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face,” id., at 570. A claim has facial plausibility when the pleaded factual content allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Id., at 556. Two working principles underlie Twombly. First, the tenet that a court must accept a complaint’s allegations as true is inapplicable to threadbare recitals of a cause of action’s elements, supported by mere conclusory statements. Id., at 555. Second, determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim is context-specific, requiring the reviewing court to draw on its experience and common sense. Id., at 556. A court considering a motion to dismiss may begin by identifying allegations that, because they are mere conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the complaint’s framework, 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. Pp. 13–16.

        (c) Iqbal’s pleadings do not comply with Rule 8 under Twombly. Several of his allegations—that petitioners agreed to subject him to harsh conditions as a matter of policy, solely on account of discriminatory factors and for no legitimate penological interest; that Ashcroft was that policy’s “principal architect”; and that Mueller was “instrumental” in its adoption and execution—are conclusory and not entitled to be assumed true. Moreover, the factual allegations that the FBI, under Mueller, arrested and detained thousands of Arab Muslim men, and that he and Ashcroft approved the detention policy, do not plausibly suggest that petitioners purposefully discriminated on prohibited grounds. Given that the September 11 attacks were perpetrated by Arab Muslims, it is not surprising that a legitimate policy directing law enforcement to arrest and detain individuals because of their suspected link to the attacks would produce a disparate, incidental impact on Arab Muslims, even though the policy’s purpose was to target neither Arabs nor Muslims. Even if the complaint’s well-pleaded facts gave rise to a plausible inference that Iqbal’s arrest was the result of unconstitutional discrimination, that inference alone would not entitle him to relief: His claims against petitioners rest solely on their ostensible policy of holding detainees categorized as “of high interest,” but the complaint does not contain facts plausibly showing that their policy was based on discriminatory factors. Pp. 16–20.

        (d) Three of Iqbal’s arguments are rejected. Pp. 20–23.

            (i) His claim that Twombly should be limited to its antitrust context is not supported by that case or the Federal Rules. Because Twombly interpreted and applied Rule 8, which in turn governs the pleading standard “in all civil actions,” Rule 1, the case applies to antitrust and discrimination suits alike, see 550 U. S., at 555–556, and n. 14. P. 20.

            (ii) Rule 8’s pleading requirements need not be relaxed based on the Second Circuit’s instruction that the District Court cabin discovery to preserve petitioners’ qualified-immunity defense in anticipation of a summary judgment motion. The question presented by a motion to dismiss for insufficient pleadings does not turn on the controls placed on the discovery process. Twombly, supra, at 559. And because Iqbal’s complaint is deficient under Rule 8, he is not entitled to discovery, cabined or otherwise. Pp. 20–22.

            (iii) Rule 9(b)—which requires particularity when pleading “fraud or mistake” but allows “other conditions of a person’s mind [to] be alleged generally”—does not require courts to credit a complaint’s conclusory statements without reference to its factual context. Rule 9 merely excuses a party from pleading discriminatory intent under an elevated pleading standard. It does not give him license to evade Rule 8’s less rigid, though still operative, strictures. Pp. 22–23.

        (e) The Second Circuit should decide in the first instance whether to remand to the District Court to allow Iqbal to seek leave to amend his deficient complaint. P. 23.

490 F. 3d 143, reversed and remanded.

    Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, JJ., joined. Souter, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion.


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