Sometimes the Supreme Court issues brief rulings that no one seems to know about. But these rulings can govern our lives for years to come. If you litigate cases in federal court, this one is worth reading. It clarifies what the plaintiff can omit from the complaint.
The case is Johnson v,. City of Shelby, a per curium ruling issued on November 10. This case tells us about the new pleading standards set by the Supreme Court in the Iqbal ruling from 2009, which held that plaintiffs must plead a plausible claim in order to survive a motion to dismiss. In this case, two police officers sued the City for wrongful discharge, claiming their termination violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Normally, these claims are brought under 42 USC sec. 1983, the federal civil rights statute that plaintiffs invoke to enforce constitutional rights. The problem is that the complaint does not actually say that plaintiffs are suing under Section 1983. So the district court dismissed the case outright.
Dismissing the case was wrong, the Supreme Court says. Federal pleading rules only require the plaintiff to provide "a short and plain statement of the claiming showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." The Court has said in the past that heightened pleading requirements do not govern civil rights cases. While Iqbal requires the plaintiff to allege a plausible claim, that is a factual requirement, in contrast to this case, where the plaintiff did not cite the proper statute.
You don't have to cite the statute governing your case. The complaint does not have to allege the proper legal theory, only the facts that entitle you to relief. As the Court tells us in this case, the federal rules "do not countenance dismissal of a complaint for imperfect statement of the legal theory supporting the claim asserted." Various practice guides have always supported this position,and the Supreme Court now adopts it.