Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Icky Iqbal

Quite a decision from the Supreme Court yesterday: in a case called Iqbal, by a 5-4 vote (and you won't need me to tell you who was in the 5 and who in the 4), the Court dismissed a lawsuit by someone who claimed that in the wake of 9/11 he was arrested and subjected to unconstitutional treatment because of his race, religion, and/or national origin. (The plaintiff was a Pakistani Muslim.) The plaintiff specifically claimed that Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller personally condoned and willfully and maliciously subjected him to harsh treatment on these illegal grounds. But the Court dismissed the case.

What's remarkable about the case is this: the Court dismissed the case based solely on the pleadings. The Court said that the plaintiff wasn't even entitled to an opportunity to try to prove his case against Ashcroft and Mueller. The plaintiff alleged that these officials acted against him out of illegal bias, but it didn't provide much evidence for this allegation.

And of course, normally, that wouldn't matter. The complaint just starts a case. Plaintiffs aren't required to plead their evidence. If I sue you and say in my complaint, "you punched me in the nose," and you say, "no, I didn't," that's not an excuse for dismissing the case. We have to have a process for determining who's telling the truth, and that process is called trying the case.

Dismissal is appropriate only if my allegations, even assuming them to be true, don't amount to a real complaint. If I say, "you made a nasty face at me," that complaint could be dismissed, because even if you did, there's no law against it. If I say, "you were my employer and you fired me for no reason," that complaint could be dismissed, because, guess what, employers are generally allowed to fire their employees for no reason.

So the normal rule is that the allegations of a complaint are assumed to be true for purposes of a motion to dimsiss. But in a recent case called Twombly, and even more in yesterday's Iqbal case, the Supreme Court has upset decades of pleading law by deciding that sometimes, a court can determine that it doesn't need to accept "conclusory" allegations. The problem with Iqbal's complaint, apparently, was that he alleged that he didn't sufficiently allege facts that would help prove the defendants' allegedly illegal motives.

This is a bad decision. Sure, the plaintiff needs to prove his case at some point. But that's not the function of the complaint. The complaint serves only to give the defendants general notice of what the case is about. We have other processes for determining whether the plaintiff really has a case: discovery, summary judgment, and, ultimately, trial.

Not only will this case be used as an excuse by judges to get rid of cases they don't like, but it will result in decades of confusion about what constitutes a "conclusory" allegation and what is a sufficient factual pleading. A great achievement of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure was that they put an end to pointless, time-consuming squabbles about how much had to be in the complaint. Now the Supreme Court has reinstated this pointless battle.


Laura Bergus said...

I'm a student who just finished 1L year so civil procedure is fresh in my head. It was hard in class to grasp the impact of Twombly on the pleading process, but your post makes clear why such decisional modifications to the Federal Rules are important - and potentially dangerous to our justice system. Thank you for explaining this case so clearly.

Jon Siegel said...

Thanks, Laura, you made my day.