Pleadings standards

  • January 24, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Robert L. Weinberg, Adjunct Faculty, George Washington University Law School and University of Virginia School of Law; former President, District of Columbia Bar; former Partner, Williams and Connolly LLP
    On July 3, 2013, the Seventh Circuit rendered the first appellate opinion on the issue of whether Twombly and Iqbal may be applied to adjudicate the sufficiency of federal criminal indictments in United States v. Vaughn. Coincidentally, that same day, ACS released my Issue Brief, “Applying the Rationale of Twombly to Provide Safeguards for the Accused in Federal Criminal Cases.” My Issue Brief analyzed the sufficiency of indictments under the very same criminal conspiracy statute involved in the Seventh Circuit case – 21 U.S.C. Section 846.
    In Vaughn, the Seventh Circuit upheld the sufficiency of a bare-bones drug conspiracy indictment charged under 21 U.S.C. Section 846, which would plainly have been invalidated if the court had followed the Twombly holding that the allegation of a “conspiracy” is merely a “legal conclusion” and not a “factual allegation.” Twombly’s holding on this point was reaffirmed in Iqbal. Twombly had dismissed a civil treble damages complaint for violation of a criminal conspiracy statute, the Sherman Antitrust Act.  As Iqbal noted:
    “The Court held the plaintiffs’ complaint deficient under Rule 8.  In doing so it first noted that the plaintiffs’ assertion of an unlawful agreement was a ‘legal conclusion’ and, as such, was not entitled to the assumption of truth. Had the Court simply credited the allegation of a conspiracy, the plaintiffs would have stated a claim for relief and been entitled to proceed perforce.
    The Seventh Circuit rejected the application of the Supreme Court’s Twombly and Iqbal rulings to criminal indictments, on the theory that the Circuit should not “adopt the civil pleading standards articulated by the Supreme Court…to assess sufficiency of a criminal indictment.”
  • September 9, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). Sen. Whitehouse is a member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, as well as the Budget Committee, Environment and Public Works Committee, Judiciary Committee and the Special Committee on Aging.

    James Madison famously observed in Federalist 39 that our American experiment depends on “the capacity of mankind for self-government.”  History has vindicated Madison’s faith in the American people, but we must not grow complacent.  Recent Supreme Court decisions, for example, have undermined Americans’ ability to participate in our system of self-government by opening the floodgates to corporate cash in our elections and eliminating the provision of the Voting Rights Act that has protected millions of Americans from discriminatory voting practices.  Another institution within our system of self-government – the civil jury – is also under attack and is disappearing, with little fanfare.  It is time to sound the alarm.

    As I recently explained in the National Law Journal, the civil jury came to the United States with the earliest colonists.  It provided a means of self-government for Americans who chafed under British rule, and its preservation was vital to the founding generation.  Consequently, the Seventh Amendment  protected access to the civil jury, which serves, in the words of Alexis De Tocqueville, as a “political institution” and “one form of the sovereignty of the people.”

    Unlike other institutions of government which can be dominated by the rich and the well-connected, the civil jury puts all citizens equal before the law.  As Sir William Blackstone observed, the jury “preserves in the hands of the people that share, which they ought to have in the administration of public justice, and prevents the encroachments of the more powerful and wealthy citizens.”  The Founders wished to assure that when the executive is corrupt, when powerful interests have the legislature tied in knots, and when the press has turned against you, the hard square corners of the jury box still stand strong.

  • December 21, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Jonah Gelbach, a senior research fellow at the Yale Department of Economics Program in Applied Economics and Policy and a Yale Law School student.

    The Supreme Court’s 2007 and 2009 opinions in Bell Atlantic v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal upended Conley v. Gibson’s famous rule that a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim should be dismissed only if there is no set of facts under which the complaint’s claims could entitle the plaintiff to relief. Instead, Twombly and Iqbal require a plaintiff’s complaint to include allegations making entitlement to relief not just logically possible, but plausible.

    Critics have attacked Twombly and Iqbal for both raising pleading standards and injecting subjectivity into Rule 12(b)(6) adjudication. Kevin Clermont and Stephen Yeazell characterize the post-Iqbal situation as “Pleading Left Bleeding.” Civil rights and employment discrimination cases have raised special concern. Their plaintiffs might be especially unable to meet elevated pleading standards without discovery, setting up a need-discovery-to-get-to-discovery Catch-22. Joshua Civin & Debo P. Adegbile wrote in an ACS issue brief that Twombly and Iqbal might “create an undesirable safe harbor that effectively places some defendants beyond the reach of civil rights laws.”

    Not everyone is disappointed, to be sure. For example, attorneys Mark Herrmann and James Beck have written that “out-of-control litigation prompted the Supreme Court in Twombly to adjust the threshold pleading requirements for unleashing the legal process.”

    Normative questions aside, some observers cite a report the Federal Judicial Center (FJC) issued in March 2011 for the proposition that Twombly and Iqbal haven’t actually affected much. The report found that “there was no increase in the rate of grants of motions to dismiss without leave to amend,” including among civil rights and employment discrimination cases.

    But the FJC report also found that the share of filed lawsuits that face a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss increased substantially after Twombly and Iqbal — more than 50 percent --  depending on the type of lawsuit involved. In my paper, “Locking the Doors to Discovery?,” forthcoming as a student Note in volume 121 of the Yale Law Journal, I argue that the increase in the proportion of Rule 12(b)(6) filings is evidence of a “defendant selection effect.” Defendants who are more confident of victory at the 12(b)(6) stage will file motions to dismiss against cases that are more strongly pleaded and that the defendants would have answered before Twombly/Iqbal. Clermont and Yeazell express this point colorfully, writing that a defense attorney “commits legal malpractice if he or she fails to move to dismiss with liberal citations to Twombly and Iqbal.”

    Thus, defendant selection should increase the average quality of complaints that face Rule 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss after Twombly/Iqbal. Given that there was little change in the rate at which these motions to dismiss were granted, the result is that the FJC report is actually powerful evidence in favor of the contention that Twombly and Iqbal have had a substantial impact. If defendants file motions to dismiss against a stronger set of complaints but win just as often, then judges must be dismissing complaints that they would not have dismissed before. The end result is that more cases fail to reach discovery than would have before Twombly and Iqbal.

    In my paper, I use an economic model to try to quantify the impact that Twombly and Iqbal have had in preventing claims from reaching discovery.

  • August 3, 2011

    by Nicole Flatow

    Access to the courts is under assault on a number of fronts, at a time when more and more people have legal issues arising from the economic downturn, The Huffington Post reports.

    At the state level, slashed state court budgets have become a serious concern, resulting in significant staff resource cuts, reduced operating hours, increased fees and cases delayed for as long as ten years. “[M]any court advocates bristle that the third branch of government is being treated as nothing more than a state agency begging for scraps,” the article notes.

    Meanwhile, “the attack on courts at the state level is coinciding with one of the worst federal judicial crises the country has seen,” the article explains. Just last night, the Senate recessed for a full month without voting on 20 fully vetted nominees.

    Then there are legal services organizations, which are suffering blows in federal, state and private funding. While the economic downturn meant cuts to local and state funding for many organizations, and a loss of other sources of revenue such as Interest on Lawyer Accounts and private donations, the House Appropriations Committee has proposed a 26-percent cut to the Legal Services Corporation budget, which would require legal services organizations to turn away some 235,000 people, according to LSC estimates.

    All of this means that people coming into the court system without representation have nowhere to turn for help.

    “When people don't have a lawyer to represent them and explain the court system's complicated procedures to them, they need extra assistance from judicial staff -- who are now in short supply because of the budget cuts,” the article explains.

  • July 12, 2011
    Video Interview

    The Supreme Court continues to limit the ability of people to seek justice in the courts, Public Citizen’s Allison Zieve tells ACSblog. Zieve cited as an example, the high court’s April opinion in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, which found in favor of AT&T’s effort to bar consumers from joining in a class action to challenge the wireless company’s charges.

    In an interview following ACS’s 2010 – 2011 Supreme Court Term Review, Zieve, litigation director for Public Citizen, said:

    It seems to me that the court is consistently unsympathetic to class action suits, to broader suits and has a distinct anti-litigation trend in a lot of its cases. The Court doesn’t seem to feel that state law claims, tort claims, consumer protection claims, have a lot of value, and so not only do plaintiffs frequently lose in those cases, they do so through opinions that don’t really show much respect for the civil justice system. So, I think that raises a significant concern about people’s ongoing access to the courts, access to court remedies. There’s a lot of situations in which state law provides the only remedy, and the Supreme Court has been cutting those access to the court system off through a very sympathetic view of arbitration, a broad reading of the federal arbitration act, through preemption, standing requirements that have been made more and more stringent over the years; so there’s a lot of ways the courthouse doors are being closed to just regular people.

    For more analysis and information about corporate interests before the Supreme Court and other federal courts, visit a the ACS Web Page, Corporations and the Courts, with resources that include two ACS Issue Briefs, “Why Does Business (Usually) Win in the Roberts Court?,” “Judicial Hostility to Litigation and How it Impairs Accountability for Corporations and Other Defendants,” and a recent article from the official ACS Journal, the Harvard Law & Policy Review, called “Class Action at the Crossroads: An Answer to Wal-Mart v. Dukes.”

    Watch Zieve’s interview below or download a video podcast of the interview. The interview can also be seen here.