Joshua Civin, an assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., (LDF) and Debo P. Adegbile, associate director-counsel and director of litigation at LDF, write that the high court has "skewed the balance away from access to the courts by elevating the threshold standard that all plaintiffs must meet to pursue legal claims. The two cases [Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal], have "without clear necessity overturned well-settled law and imposed a more stringent standard for federal cases to survive," they maintain.
In "Restoring Access to Justice: The Impact of Iqbal and Twombly on Federal Civil Rights Litigation," Civin and Adegbile explain that when the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were created in 1938, "they transformed civil litigation by establishing a liberal standard for what plaintiffs must plead in their complaints to initiate a federal lawsuit to withstand a motion dismiss." Specifically the federal rules merely required that plaintiffs lodge a "short and plain" statement about why they are entitled to relief.
But with Twombly and Iqbal the high court, the authors state, has "usurped by judicial fiat the deliberative and inclusive process that Congress has established ...."
The Twombly case applied specifically to antitrust laws, but in the 5-4 Iqbal opinion, the majority expanded the more stringent pleading standards to all civil cases. Writing for the narrow majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy held that for a complaint to survive a motion to dismiss, plaintiffs must provide much more specific factual information, and that a court can "draw on its judicial experience and common sense," in determining whether to dismiss a lawsuit, the authors write.
"The new emphasis on factual specificity is especially onerous for civil rights plaintiffs," Civin and Adegbile say. "In many civil rights cases, most, if not all, pertinent information is within the exclusive province of the defendant - through its agents, employees, records, and documents. For instance, when a plaintiff alleges she was the victim of a discriminatory practice, she typically must expose the defendant's ‘private, behind-closed-doors-conduct,' including ‘particular meetings and conversations, which individuals were involved, when and where meetings occurred, what was discussed, and, ultimately, who knew what, when, and why.'"
The authors urge Congress to pass legislation to return the pleading standards to those used for five decades and required courts "to view allegations in the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff."
Lawmakers in Congress have introduced a bill, the "Notice and Pleading Restoration Act," which is intended to require federal courts to follow traditional civil procedure rules for filing lawsuits.