Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Conley v. Gibson Overruled

Since 1957, Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, has been the main case construing FRCP 8(a)(2)'s requirement that complaints contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Conley stated that "a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief," 355 U.S. at 45-46. This was, aptly, called a "liberal" pleading standard, the principal effect of which was to permit many meritless pro se (and poorly drafted attorney) complaints to go forward, into the money pit of discovery. This is a very common occurrence in copyright cases, especially pro se suits against motion picture companies, who should, therefore, applaud the Court's decision.

On May 21th, the Supreme Court overruled Conley in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 2007 WL 1955, a case brought by a putative class against local telephone exchange carriers. The question before the Court was what needed to be plead in order to state a claim under Section 1 of the Sherman Act: Judge Gerard Lynch of the SDNY (a brilliant judge) had dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim, but the Second Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court, 7-2, in an opinion by Justice Souter, reversed the court of appeal.

The Court rejected Conley's "no facts" formulation as permitting a wholly conclusory statement of a claim to go forward, unless there is a factual impossibility of plaintiff at some time (even in the future) being able to support its allegations. The Court held that from now on, a certain level of plausibility is required: "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level," "a complaint [must contain] enough factual matter (taken as true) to suggest that" violative activity has occurred. These allegations must plausibly suggest not merely consistent with that activity. The Court was particularly aware of the desire to weed out groundless cases before expensive discovery occurs.

Hopefuly, district judges will quickly read the Court's signals and start dispatching the hundreds of meritless pro se cases that clog dockets and waste time and money. If we could get rid of striking similarity too, I would believe we would be well on the way to a legal Mosiach coming.

One can, though, make too much of Twombly's jettisoning on Conley, which was after all, limited to Conley's extremities. On Monday, the Court signalled that we haven't moved to a heightened pleading requirement. In a per curiam opinion, Erickson v. Pardus, 2007 WL 1582936 (June 4, 2007), involving a pro se prisoner who brought a Section 1983 action over alleged indifference to his medical condition, the Court simultaneously granted cert. and vacated the lower court's dismissal of the complaint: "The holding [below] departs in so stark a manner from the pleading standard mandated by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure mandated by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that we grant review." The Court noted that "Specific facts are not necessary; the statement need only 'give the defendant fair notice of what the ... claim is and the grounds on which it rests."

1 comment:

Ethan said...

The race to divine Twombly's scope, especially in light of Erickson, is on.

Concurring Opinions advises caution, and is a very interesting post -

SCOTUSBlog has an excellent post rounding up thoughts both expansive and narrow -