In May 2009, Ashcroft v. Iqbal divided the Supreme Court of the United States over one of the most basic questions in civil procedure – what must a plaintiff plead to get into court? The five-to-four decision has since been hailed as “the most significant Supreme Court decision in a decade for day-to-day litigation in the federal courts.” Moreover, it may soon become “the most frequently cited Supreme Court case by the lower federal courts in all of American history.” The critics of the Court find it most alarming that Iqbal arguably makes it easier for federal courts to dismiss a complaint before giving the plaintiff an opportunity to discover and present its evidence. In the particular case, the Court threw out a suspected terrorist’s claim against former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller, which alleged that the claimant’s detainment following the September 11 terrorist attacks was solely the result of discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin. The Court’s critics warn, however, that suspected terrorists are not the only ones at risk. They argue that Iqbal is “a sweeping decision with the potential to impact every plaintiff in a civil lawsuit….” In fact, they have identified numerous plaintiffs whose rights they argue have already been violated by the decision, including an epilepsy patient suffering multi-organ failure, Coca-Cola trade unionists in Columbia, protesters of President George W. Bush, anti-abortion protestors, members of the Popular Democratic Party in Puerto Rico terminated from employment at La Fortaleza, an African-American Philip Morris employee, owners of insulated baby-bottle coolers, a concerned airline passenger placed on the terrorist watch-list, an inexperienced investor in commercial real estate, a prescription drug insurance provider that paid out millions for an atypical antipsychotic drug, and a sixty-year-old National Forest Agency employee with sensory deficit condition.
The Court’s influential decision turned upon its interpretation of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Under Rule 8(a)(2), pleadings must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief….” Instead of referring to the half-century-old “notice” pleading standard, the Court formulated a “plausibility” standard for evaluating every civil complaint. Under the plausibility standard, “only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss.” The use of that one word – plausibility – has created substantial controversy. From one perspective, the Iqbal decision merely settled the debate about whether the standard established two years earlier in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly applies in every civil case. (Of course, that begs the question whether Twombly was a good decision in the first place.) From another perspective, Iqbal “messed up” the federal rules and effectively “abandon[ed] the liberal pleading rules which have prevailed for decades.” Since the ruling, legal professionals have argued about whether the rules need to be changed and, if so, by what means. Additionally, members of Congress have proposed legislation to overrule the Supreme Court’s decision inAshcroft v. Iqbal.
Part II of this Note provides the general historical background that gave rise to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, as well as the Supreme Court’s treatment of pleading standards over the last half-century. Part III briefly presents the factual setting and procedural history for Ashcroft v. Iqbal. Part IV analyzes the two-pronged approach to the plausibility standard. Specifically, it covers how the Court distinguishes between facts and conclusions and how the Court determines whether pleadings contain a plausible claim of entitlement to relief. Part V discusses both sides to each of the four major criticisms of the Court’s opinion: (A) that the plausibility standard raised pleading standards, harming plaintiffs; (B) that the Court did not have sufficient reason for adopting the plausibility standard; (C) that there are too many difficulties in the application of the plausibility standard; and (D) that the Court violated the rulemaking process. Part VI summarizes the impact of the decision on Rule 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss. Part VII discusses Congress’s proposed legislation and the problems with its members’ attempt to overturn Ashcroft v. Iqbal. This Note concludes with the suggestion that the plausibility standard is nothing more than an explication of Rule 8(a)(2) and the long-standing procedure for dismissal where there is an insufficient pleading of fact.