A few months ago, we alerted readers to the bill that Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) had introduced that would undermine the clarified civil pleading standards for plaintiffs set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955 (2007) decision, and reaffirmed in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009), decided in May.
The so-called “Notice Pleading Restoration Act of 2009’’ would turn back the clock to the ancient and unrealistic interpretation of Rule 8 of the Civil Rules announced in Conley v. Gibson more than 5 decades ago. The bill is clearly aimed at helping the plaintiffs’ bar and making it more difficult for defendants to get courts to dismiss frivolous and ungrounded litigation before expensive discovery. Specter, the newly turned Democrat facing an uphill re-election battle, submitted the bill over the summer. In the Senate, a hearing on the bill is expected in the Judiciary Subcommittee on administrative oversight and the courts, chaired by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).
Last week, Rep. Nadler (D.N.Y.), along with Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Henry Johnson (D-Ga.), introduced a bill in the House (H.R. 4115) to overturn Iqbal and Twombly. Their version is called the “Open Access to Courts Act of 2009.” Unlike the Specter bill, the House version incorporates specific language from the Supreme Court’s ancient Conley decision. The bill states a court shall not dismiss a complaint “unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of the claim which would entitle the plaintiff to relief.” The House bill also would expressly bar a federal court from using the Iqbal and Twombly analysis, stating a court shall not dismiss a complaint “on the basis of a determination by the judge that the factual contents of the complaint do not show the plaintiff’s claim to be plausible or are insufficient to warrant a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” In other words, the claim need not even be plausible, and it is not a problem if no reasonable person could infer that the defendant might actually be liable.
The House bill follows directly from the efforts of the American Association for Justice, formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, which convened a meeting of many of the pro-litigation, anti-business interest groups to map out a strategy to not just turn back the clock, but to replace the current common sense regime. They eventually sent a letter to the members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees, complaining that the current standards are hampering access to the courts and are denying their clients due process. This coalition must have also thought that the Specter bill did not go far enough in simply trying to turn the clock back to the status quo ante.
In reality, it’s hard to argue for overturning the two decisions without resort to hollow sloganeering or vague appeals to a warped definition of due process. The decisions — and think about whether you would want a case to proceed against you on this basis — focus the trial courts’ attention on mere “threadbare recitals” and vague and “conclusory statements,” to watch out for a mere re-stating of the hornbook legal elements of the case, and to look for a plaintiff to allege a “plausible” claim for relief that judges can evaluate based on their “judicial experience and common sense.” In other words, say plaintiffs, please allow us to bring frivolous claims, alleging nothing of substance, and get into expensive protracted discovery so that we can force defendants to settle. That’s “due” process.
The legislation would likely create great confusion over the applicable legal standards for motions to dismiss, and eventually overwhelm the courts with frivolous lawsuits. It seems the Democrats’ goal to make it impossible for defendants to get cases dismissed early.
Not surprisingly, the House bill ignores the national security issues associated with overturning Iqbal, a case in which the plaintiff sought to sue a group of top government officials for allegedly violating his civil rights after he was arrested and detained in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The Democrats appear to think it is a good idea to subject Justice Department and FBI and Homeland Security officials to suits that are not plausible, are conclusory, are mere recitals of the elements of a cause of action.
At the very least, any legislative effort is premature, pending a study to measure the possible effects of the Iqbal and Twombly decisions that is being conducted by the Judicial Conference of the United States. A preliminary study, reviewing both district and appellate court cases, concluded there was little evidence to date that courts were dismissing meritorious claims under the Iqbal/Twombly standards.