National Law Journal
‘Iqbal’ Brings Seven Years of Bad Luck for Plaintiffs
OPINION: The heightened pleading standard established in 2009 is based on faulty propositions.
Arthur H. Bryant, The National Law Journal
May 23, 2016
The seventh anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal was May 18. It’s a date that should live in infamy.
A 5-4 decision, Iqbal ignored reality — and the fact that truth is stranger than fiction. It flouted the process for amending the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. And it particularly limited access to justice for civil rights, employment discrimination and individual plaintiffs.
Seventy years before Iqbal, in 1938, the Federal Rules were adopted to get rid of “fact” pleading, which the rule-makers thought “led to wasteful disputes about distinctions that … were arbitrary or metaphysical, too often cutting off adjudication on the merits.” Under the new Rule 8, to start a lawsuit, the plaintiff had to file a complaint with “a short and plain statement of the claim showing the pleader is entitled to relief.”
As the court later explained in Conley v. Gibson, the complaint did not have to “set out the facts in detail.” It just had to give the defendant “fair notice of what the plaintiff’s claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” A motion to dismiss would only be granted if “it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.” Then, the plaintiff could take discovery, to find out what the defendant and other relevant people knew and when they knew it. After that, the court would determine whether there was sufficient proof to require a trial.
In Iqbal, the court rejected a complaint alleging that high-level U.S. officials had a Pakistani Muslim and thousands of other Arab men illegally arrested and detained after the 9/11 attacks because of “their race, religion, and national origin … and not because of any evidence” of their “involvement in supporting terrorist activity.”
To do so, the court changed the rules. It held that, from now on, to “survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Dismissal no longer turned on whether the complaint provided “fair notice” to the defendant; it turned on whether the claim was “plausible on its face.” How were judges to determine that? By drawing on their “judicial experience and common sense.”
Motions to dismiss were immediately filed throughout the federal courts. Judges’ and lawyers’ workloads increased enormously. The lower courts and lawyers are still struggling to figure out how the new system is supposed to work — and, if they can, make it fair.
For three reasons, however, it’s become increasingly clear that Iqbal was a mistake.
First, whatever one thinks about the allegations in the case, the Iqbal pleading standard is based on a proposition — allegations probably aren’t true if they’re not plausible on their face — that is false. Reality keeps teaching us that. None of us, including federal judges using their “judicial experience and common sense,” would have believed that any of the following was plausible a few years ago:
• Donald Trump would be the presumptive Republican Party nominee for president of the United States of America.
• A prominent candidate for president would propose banning all Muslims from entering America or call women “fat pigs,” “dogs” and “disgusting animals.”
• Same-sex marriage would be legal nationwide.
• The U.S. government would obtain and be able to search virtually all Americans’ phone records.
• Olympic champion Bruce Jenner would become a woman, Caitlyn Jenner.
• Federal, state and local governments would battle over what kind of bathroom people such as Caitlyn Jenner could use.
Similar implausible things happen every day.
Second, Iqbal effectively rewrote the Federal Rules without following the legally established rules for amending them. Under the Rules Enabling Act, before rules are changed, detailed procedures must be followed involving the Advisory Committees to the U.S. Judicial Conference’s Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure; the Standing Committee itself; notice to and comment from lawyers, judges and the public; the U.S. Judicial Conference; the Supreme Court; and Congress — so the changes are fully considered and fair.
In 2002, the court unanimously rejected a company’s plea for a heightened pleading standard in employment discrimination cases, saying that result “must be obtained by the process of amending the Federal Rules, and not judicial interpretation.” It should have said that in Iqbal, too.
Third, Iqbal is especially harmful to civil rights, employment discrimination and individual plaintiffs. Last year, the most comprehensive study of Iqbal’s effects, “Measuring the Impact of Plausibility Pleading,” was published in the Virginia Law Review. It found that Iqbal increased dismissals of most cases by 10 percent, but employment discrimination and civil rights cases much more (16 percent and 19 percent, respectively). Cases filed by individuals were also dismissed far more often (18 percent), but not cases filed by corporations.
In theory, this could mean that only bad cases were dismissed more promptly. But, if that were true, a higher percentage of the cases remaining in court would succeed. They didn’t. These plaintiffs were just disproportionately denied a chance to prove their claims.
The high court should reverse the Iqbal decision. Whether cases proceed should turn on the facts and the law, not on whether judges think the allegations are plausible.
Arthur H. Bryant is the chairman of Public Justice, a national public interest law firm dedicated to advancing and preserving access to justice. His practice focuses on consumers’ rights, workers’ rights, civil rights, environmental protection, and corporate and government accountability.