The New York Times is providing important coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 18, 2009 decision in the case known as Ashcroft v. Iqbal:
The lower courts have certainly understood the significance of the decision, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, which makes it much easier for judges to dismiss civil lawsuits right after they are filed. They have cited it more than 500 times in just the last two months.
“Iqbal is the most significant Supreme Court decision in a decade for day-to-day litigation in the federal courts,” said Thomas C. Goldstein, an appellate lawyer with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington.
Why is Iqbal such an important case?
As the Times notes:
For more than half a century, it has been clear that all a plaintiff had to do to start a lawsuit was to file what the rules call “a short and plain statement of the claim” in a document called a complaint. Having filed such a bare-bones complaint, plaintiffs were entitled to force defendants to open their files and submit to questioning under oath.
This approach, particularly when coupled with the American requirement that each side pay its own lawyers no matter who wins, gave plaintiffs settlement leverage. Just by filing a lawsuit, a plaintiff could subject a defendant to great cost and inconvenience in the pre-trial fact-finding process called discovery…
Information about wrongdoing is often secret. Plaintiffs claiming they were the victims of employment discrimination, a defective product, an antitrust conspiracy or a policy of harsh treatment in detention may not know exactly who harmed them and how before filing suit. But plaintiffs can learn valuable information during discovery.
The Iqbal decision now requires plaintiffs to come forward with concrete facts at the outset, and it instructs lower court judges to dismiss lawsuits that strike them as implausible.
“Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the five-justice majority, “requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.”
Note those words: Plausible. Common sense.
So what is the real world effect of the Supreme Court’s decision?
The Times provides some hints:
“It obviously licenses highly subjective judgments,” said Stephen B. Burbank, an authority on civil procedure at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “This is a blank check for federal judges to get rid of cases they disfavor.”
Courts applying Iqbal have been busy. A federal judge in Connecticut dismissed a disability discrimination suit this month, saying that Iqbal required her to treat the plaintiff’s assertions as implausible. A few days later, the federal appeals court in New York dismissed a breach of contract and securities fraud suit after concluding that its account of the defendants’ asserted wrongdoing was too speculative.
Indeed, the Plaintiff in Iqbal himself, was a Pakistani Muslim working and living in Long Island, who claims he was arrested 2 months after 9/11 and then beaten and tortured. But the court didn’t want to hear about it:
Justice Kennedy said Mr. Iqbal’s suit against two officials had not cleared the plausibility bar. All Mr. Iqbal’s complaint plausibly suggested, Justice Kennedy wrote, “is that the nation’s top law enforcement officers, in the aftermath of a devastating terrorist attack, sought to keep suspected terrorists in the most secure conditions available.”
In other words, the Court found the allegation that an innocent person was tortured as “implausible”. It has become apparent to everyone, however, that many innocent people were tortured.
The Iqbal decision is – literally – an assault by the Supreme Court on the American system of justice. For it prevents plaintiffs from having their day in court if either:
- The judge doesn’t want to hear the case; or
- The defendant has hidden the evidence of wrongdoing, so that the plaintiff cannot provide the details of defendant’s wrongdoing without the use of the formal discovery process which only starts once litigation has commenced
People may ask “the Supreme Court interprets and enforces the American justice system, so how can it gut that system?
Well, Congress members and the President are supposed to represent the interests of the American people. Have they always done so?
Judges – like people in the White House and Congress – are human beings with political and personal viewpoints. Some stick to the case precedent while others – no matter how high and mighty – abandon it for political or personal reasons. That is the dirty little secret that those who work inside the justice system know.
In rendering the Iqbal decision, the Supreme Court abandoned some of the fundamental principals of justice, leaving a system which only pays lip service to that word.
Several Supreme Court justices dissented with the majority’s opinion in Iqbal. As Raw Story writes:
Departing Justice David H. Souter sided with the minority in this case, expressing dismay in his dissent and suggesting the decision could “upend,” said the Times, the federal civil litigation system. He argued that complaints should be accepted “no matter how skeptical the court may be,” so long as the accusations are not “sufficiently fantastic to defy reality as we know it.”
“[Claims] about little green men, or the plaintiff’s recent trip to Pluto, or experiences in time travel,” he said, should be the bar for disqualification.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed, suggesting the court had “messed up the federal rules” for civil suits.