HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH? THE SUPREME COURT SETS THE STANDARD FOR MAKING A CLAIM
On May 18, 2009, the Supreme Court issued a controversial decision with far-reaching implications for cases filed in federal court. Ashcroft v. Iqbal is about the amount of detail required in a complaint, a document filed at the beginning of a lawsuit. A complaint sets out the claims the party bringing the lawsuit, known as the plaintiff, has against the party being sued, known as the defendant.
In Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, a case decided not long before Iqbal, the Supreme Court considered the amount of information complaints in antitrust cases must have. In Iqbal, the Supreme Court, split 5 justices to 4, broadened the scope of Twombly to all complaints filed in federal court. To survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff must now provide enough facts to show that, if he proves his case, it is not just “possible” the defendant acted unlawfully; it is “plausible”.
For plaintiffs, Iqbal heightens the amount of information they will need to plead. Now before ever conducting depositions, asking written questions or seeking documents, a plaintiff in federal court is going to need to know enough about his case to draft a complaint showing it is plausible there in fact is a case.
The new pleading requirement does not absolve those who bring suit from the honesty and candor requirements inherent in court proceedings. A plaintiff must verify his complaint under penalty of perjury, and his counsel must have a reasonable basis to assert the allegations contained in it. Moreover, allegations contained in a complaint, like those in all other pleadings, are considered admissions by the party asserting them. Those that turn out to be false may become fodder for the plaintiff’s cross-examination. Before filing suit then, thoughtful consideration should be given not only to whether there is enough detail in the complaint to satisfy Iqbal, but also to ensure there is a solid basis for believing the detail is in fact true.
In federal court cases, the impact of Iqbal upon defense counsel, the attorneys who defend parties sued in court, is straightforward: they should scrutinize complaints. Motions to dismiss should be filed whenever a defendant’s conduct appears merely to be “possibly” unlawful. In short, defense counsel should hold plaintiffs to the burden Iqbal creates.