Civil Rights Groups Respond to High Court Decisions on Pleading Standards

September 22, 2009
Civil liberties and other public interest groups, including consumer protection ones, are organizing over recent Supreme Court decisions that they say put serious limits on lawsuits. In an article for The National Law Journal, Tony Mauro reports on the organizing around the most recent Supreme Court decision, writing that the high court "gave corporate defendants a gift that keeps on giving: the Iqbal decision, which has made it easier than ever for defendants to shut down lawsuits before they get to the costly discovery stage."

Mauro's article notes that Iqbal has been used repeatedly since it was issued by the high court in May. Motions to dismiss, based on the Iqbal decision, Mauro writes "have become commonplace in federal courts, already producing more than 1,500 district court and 100 appellate court decisions according to a Westlaw search."

In Ashcroft v. Iqbal (pdf), the Supreme Court ruled that federal judges have a greater discretion to dismiss complaints, which according to some Supreme Court practitioners will make it much easier for judges to quickly dismiss civil lawsuits. The Iqbal decision was preceded by the high court's decision in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly (pdf) that also stiffened the pleading standards. 

The public interest groups meeting last week in Washington, D.C., Mauro reports, are planning to urge Congress to restore pleading standards. Mauro notes that congressional hearings are being planned on the pleading standards.

John Payton, president and director-counsel, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which took part in the meeting, told The National Journal that Iqbal "has threatened to upend the way we have been doing things for a very long time. The alarm is real."

In July, Sen. Arlen Specter introduced the Notice Pleading Restoration Act of 2009 intended to counter the Iqbal and Twombly rulings by requiring federal courts to follow traditional civil procedure rules for filing lawsuits. Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure simply requires that complaints include "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief."

In a guest post for ACSblog, Vermont Law Professor Anthony F. Renzo wrote that, "The most ominous import of the Iqbal decision, however, is that it provides a blueprint for like-minded lower federal court judges to justify denying access to the courts to future victims of constitutional torts seeking redress for injuries caused by high-ranking federal officials."