Jul 31, 2009

Supreme Court Decision May Lead to More Dismissed Cases

Employment law experts have been paying close attention to how federal courts are interpreting the 2009 Supreme Court case of Ashcroft v. Iqbal. In the Iqbal case, the Court held that a man who was arrested as a "high interest" detainee after 9/11 could not sue various government officials for the mistreatment and abuse he allegedly suffered in detention. The facts of the case have little to do with employment law (although Iqbal made claims of discrimination), but the court's holding -- which changed the standard for determining when a judge may dismiss a complaint -- will affect all kinds of civil cases, including those alleging employment discrimination.

For more than 50 years, the rule has been that federal judges may dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim only if it is beyond doubt that the plaintiff could not prove any set of facts that would entitle him or her to relief. The complaint only had to include a "short and plain statement of the claim," according to Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Unless it was clear that the plaintiff couldn't win -- for example, because the plaintiff filed the lawsuit well after the statute of limitations expired and gave no reasons for the late filing -- the judge would allow the case to proceed to discovery, where each side gathers facts and evidence to prove its claims and defenses. 

The standard announced in Iqbal is stricter: To avoid dismissal, the plaintiff must state a claim that is "plausible on its face." Although this might not sound like a tough requirement, the Court applied it in a way that requires plaintiffs to come forward with more facts at the outset to support their legal claims -- which may be very hard for plaintiffs to do before they have had a chance to conduct discovery.

In the two months since Iqbal was decided, it has been cited more than 500 times by lower courts, according to a recent New York Times article ("9/11 Case Could Bring Broad Shift on Civil Suits"). Joe Seiner, a law school professor at the University of South Carolina, recently posted on the Workplace Prof Blog that Iqbal and an earlier case that began changing the pleading standards have led to significant confusion in Title VII and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) cases, and have led to some claims being dismissed that should have been allowed to proceed. Even Congress will soon begin considering the ramifications of the Iqbal case: Last week, Senator Arlen Specter introduced a bill that would undo the decision and require federal courts to use the more liberal standards previously in effect when determining whether a complaint should be dismissed.