Ashcroft v. Iqbal – The Supreme Court Confirms Application of Twombly's Heightened Pleading Standard to All Civil Matters

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Business & Commercial Litigation Alert

July 1, 2009

On May 18, 2009, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a 5-4 opinion in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009), confirming that the pleading standard that was first announced in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), applies to all federal civil actions. This is a significant development, as debate had lingered as to whether Twombly was to be applied broadly, see Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224 (3d Cir. 2008), or was limited to antitrust cases, see Airborne Beepers & Video, Inc. v. AT&T Mobility, LLC, 499 F.3d 663 (7th Cir. 2007). Justice Steven’s dissent in Twombly had raised this very issue: “[w]hether the [Twombly] Court’s actions will benefit only defendants in antitrust treble-damages cases, or whether its test for the sufficiency of a complaint will inure to the benefit of all civil defendants, is a question that the future will answer.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 596 (Stevens, J., dissenting). By resolving this question, Iqbal provides defendants in civil cases with a powerful tool to secure the dismissal of inadequately pleaded complaints.

Rule 8 and Twombly

Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a pleading must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Twombly retired the decades-old rule announced in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957), that before granting dismissal of a complaint at the pleading stage, a district court must find “beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.” In Twombly, the Supreme Court declared that although “a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff’s obligation to provide the grounds of his entitle[ment] to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” 550 U.S. at 555. Merely stating the theory of the claim will not suffice. Id. at 561.

The Iqbal Opinion

In Ashcroft v. Iqbal, the Supreme Court held that the complaint failed to plead sufficient facts to state a claim against numerous federal officials, among them former Attorney General John Ashcroft and former FBI director Robert Mueller, for unlawful racial and religious discrimination against individuals detained after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. 129 S. Ct. at 1942. The plaintiff, a cable television installer from Long Island, New York by the name of Javid Iqbal, was arrested and detained in November 2001 on charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States. Id. at 1943. Iqbal pleaded guilty to the charges and, after serving a term of imprisonment, was removed to Pakistan. Id. He thereafter brought a Bivens action against Ashcroft, Mueller and others complaining about the conditions of his detention. Id. According to Iqbal, both Ashcroft and Mueller “knew of, condoned, and willfully and maliciously agreed” to subject him to harsh conditions of confinement “as a matter of policy, solely on account of [his] religion, race and/or national origin and for no legitimate penological interest.” Id. at 1944. Iqbal contended that Ashcroft was the “principal architect” of the policy and that Mueller was “instrumental” in its execution. Id.

The Supreme Court observed that Rule 8 “does not unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions,” id. at 1950; 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,” id. at 1949. The Court concluded that under Twombly, Iqbal’s complaint had not “nudged [his] claims of invidious discrimination across the line from conceivable to plausible.” Id. at 1951. The Iqbal Court observed that the allegations against Ashcroft and Mueller:

amount[ed] to nothing more than a formulaic recitation of the elements of a constitutional discrimination claim, namely that [Ashcroft and Mueller] adopted a policy because of, not merely in spite of, its adverse effects upon an identifiable group. As such, the allegations are conclusory and not entitled to be assumed true.

Id. at 1951.

Justice Souter, who wrote the majority opinion in Twombly, dissented in Iqbal and was joined by Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer. The dissent argued that the majority misapplied Twombly and that the “allegations of the complaint are neither confined to naked legal conclusions nor consistent with legal conduct. … Iqbal’s complaint therefore contains enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Id. at 1960 (Souter, J., dissenting). Significantly, however, the dissent did not challenge the general applicability of Twombly to all civil cases but departed from the majority only as to the specific application of Twombly to Iqbal’s complaint and the meaning of the word “conclusory.” Id.

Significance of Holding

The Iqbal opinion should resolve any doubt regarding the scope of Twombly’s application. The law of the land is that plaintiffs in all federal cases are required to plead a legally consequential set of facts to survive dismissal. Although, in light of Justice Souter’s dissent, what it means to state a “conclusory” allegation could be the subject of future litigation, Iqbal should be a powerful tool for securing dismissals of inadequately pleaded cases.