US Supreme Court Issues Plaintiff-Friendly Pleading Decision in Johnson v. City of Shelby

In a per curiam summary reversal, the US Supreme Court issued a decision on pleading standards that represents another step away from its landmark decisions in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal.

In Tracey L. Johnson v. City of Shelby, the Supreme Court, in a short but important decision, reversed a Fifth Circuit ruling that dismissed a lawsuit by a group of police officers suing a city’s board of alderman for due process violations.

The Plaintiffs alleged substantive facts that defendants violated their due process rights, but neglected to include a reference to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which is the appropriate cause of action to sue for damages for constitutional violations, like plaintiffs’ due process claims. The Fifth Circuit concluded that plaintiffs’ failure to reference § 1983 was fatal to their claim.

The US Supreme Court disagreed. Most importantly for future litigants, the Court expressly distinguished its earlier decisions in Twombly and Iqbal, as not on point because “they concern the factual allegations a complaint must contain to survive a motion to dismiss.”

The Supreme Court characterized those cases as instructing that a plaintiff must “plead facts sufficient to show that her claim has substantive plausibility.” The Court reiterated that “Petitioner’s complaint was not deficient in that regard.” Indeed, according to the Court, “Petitioners stated simply, concisely, and directly events that, they alleged, entitled them to damages from the city.” And “[h]aving informed the city of the factual basis for their complaint, they were required to do no more to stave off threshold dismissal for want of an adequate statement of their claim.”

On remand, the Court insisted that the Plaintiffs should have an opportunity to add a citation to §1983 to their complaint. Importantly, the Supreme Court then quoted the Wright & Miller treatise that explained that it is unnecessary for a plaintiff to set out a legal theory for their claim to relief.

What is the significance of the Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson v. City of Shelby?

First , the Supreme Court makes clear that a plaintiff will not be held to a strict standard in describing its theory of recovery in the complaint. What matters is not the legal theory, but the underlying facts and providing defendants with the factual basis for plaintiff’s complaint.

This could matter in complex cases, for example, where defendants attempt in a motion to dismiss to hold plaintiffs to a legal theory outlined in the complaint. Sometimes motion-to-dismiss briefing and argument take on a life of their own. Johnson v. City of Shelby will offer plaintiffs extra room to adjust their legal theory as necessary to counter defendants’ arguments.

Second , the Supreme Court’s characterization of the complaint as stating the relevant events “simply, concisely, and directly” reiterates that Twombly and Iqbal do not require detailed pleadings. Plaintiffs need only inform defendants of the “factual basis for their complaint.”

Third , even beyond the specific holdings, lower courts could take this as a signal from the US Supreme Court to not take Twombly and Iqbal too far in requiring plaintiffs to do more than the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require. Indeed, it appears that the pendulum of federal pleading standards has already started to swing back toward the plaintiffs. You can read here about how federal courts often confuse the motion-to-dismiss standards with the summary-judgment standards.

If you need help defending a federal lawsuit, or are considering filing one, Bona Law PC can help you. We are a boutique law firm that focuses on business litigation, real-estate litigation, antitrust, appeals, and challenges to government conduct. You can reach us at 858-964-4589.