• December 3, 2014


Minnesota Litigator - Us_supreme_court_sealIn a recent per curiam decision, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped a bit away from Twombly and Iqbal.

Twombly and Iqbal tightened pleading standards for federal court cases. Taken together, Twombly and Iqbal rejected the Conley v. Gibson standard, which said that a complaint was viable unless it appeared beyond doubt that the plaintiff could prove no set of facts entitling him or her to relief. Twombly and Iqbal said that the facts alleged must show that a claim is plausible, not just possible.

The new case – Johnson v. City of Shelby – was handed down last month. In that case, the Supreme Court reversed a fifth circuit decision upholding the dismissal of a civil rights case.

The fifth circuit agreed with the district court that the complaint was deficient because, while it listed all the key facts contended, it did not specifically cite section 1983, to make clear that the case was a civil rights case.

The Supreme Court said that any reference to section 1983 was not needed, and it rejected the fifth circuit position that citation of the statute was required.

The Supreme Court said that federal rules require only a “short and plain statement of the claim.” It said that the rules don’t allow dismissal of a complaint “for imperfect statement of the legal theory supporting the claim asserted.” And it said that civil cases should not turn on technicalities.

The Johnson Court said that Twombly and Iqbal didn’t apply, because those cases dealt with the factual allegations a complaint must make.  And the circuit court in Johnson had wrongly attempted to make the plaintiff state its legal theory in the complaint, not just the facts.

The Court noted that plaintiffs need only state the facts “simply, concisely and directly.” The Court seems to be saying that detailed pleadings are not required. And, as one commenter has noted, whatever the exact language and reasoning of Johnson, lower courts may take it as a signal that Twombly and Iqbal should not be taken too far.

Interestingly, the Minnesota Supreme Court in a recent decision – Walsh v. U.S. Bank  – interpreted identical language in Minnesota Rule 8, but declined to follow the U.S. Supreme Court and require that a complaint be plausible. The Walsh Court hewed to the Conley v. Gibson standard, and held that a complaint withstands attack “if it is possible on any evidence which might be produced, consistent with the pleader’s theory, to grant the relief demanded.”

The Walsh Court did follow a similar pathway as the U.S. Supreme Court in one way, though. Like the U.S. Supreme Court, the Walsh Court drew a distinction between factual allegations and legal conclusions. Legal conclusions are not to be credited in deciding whether a complaint passes muster.   Here again, though, the U.S. Supreme Court may have gone a step further. Iqbal did not just focus on “legal conclusions,” but also on “conclusory allegations” and “conclusory statements,” with a stricter end result.

It may not always be clear what a “legal conclusion” or a “conclusory allegation” is in the context of a complaint. Watch for more developments on that down the road.

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