Monday, January 3, 2011

Vague Title VII complaint dies an Iqbal death

The Supreme Court's ruling in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009), requires plaintiffs' attorneys to file complaints alleging plausible claims. "Plausible" is a legal term of art, but courts are in agreement that bare-boned "notice" pleading is on the way out. If you want to survive an Iqbal motion, make your complaints more detailed.

The case is Nixon v. Blumenthal, a summary order decided on December 15. Nixon and other plaintiffs work for Connecticut State Police. In this First Amendment action, plaintiffs alleged they were retaliated against for cooperating with an investigation of corruption and criminal activity within the Department. If you've been following First Amendment law over the last few years, you may be wondering if this case survives a recent Supreme Court ruling, Garcetti v. Ceballos, which holds that public employee speech made pursuant to the plaintiff's official duties is not protected speech. But the Court of Appeals (Cabranes, Parker and Korman [D.J.]), resolves this case under Iqbal.

The Second Circuit summarizes the Complaint: "Plaintiffs’ complaint accuses defendants of permitting, condoning, or acquiescing in the sharing of confidential information about plaintiffs with members of senior management of the DPS. As a result, plaintiffs allege that they work 'in an environment permeated by hostility.'” These allegations were probably enough to survive a motion to dismiss in a pre-Iqbal world. Not anymore. They are deemed conclusory under Iqbal. The Court of Appeals holds:

The complaint provides no details about what kind of confidential information was disclosed, and, more significantly, the complaint offers absolutely no factual support for its conclusory allegation that plaintiffs work in an environment permeated by hostility. “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). The District Court rightly concluded that the conclusory allegations contained in plaintiffs’ complaint failed to satisfy the pleading standards set forth in Iqbal.

So what do we learn from this? Give the courts as much juicy detail in writing the Complaint as possible. Who wants to risk losing under Iqbal? The details will come out anyway in discovery, and you can go right to document exchange and depositions after filing the Complaint rather than defending a motion to dismiss. It's a cruel world under Iqbal. Be careful.

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