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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Supreme Court Makes Getting Your Day in Federal Court Much More Difficult

The case of Ashcroft -v- Iqal involved the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks in 2001.  The case is quickly becoming known, however, for placing significant procedural hurdles in the way of a litigant's access to federal court.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, left, wrote the 5-4 opinion for the high court, published last May.

The case was brought by federal detainees held, and allegedly abused, in make-shift detention centers in the Bronx shortly following the attacks on the World Trade Center. 
Javaid Iqball and other detainees filed suit in the United States District Court in New York City against former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and former FBI Director Robert Mueller. 

Unlike most cases, the plaintiffs in Iqbal had the benefit of over 100 depositions prior to filing their suit.  Thus, the initial complaint has many pages of detailed allegations. 

Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states that a complaint must contain, "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Although detailed factual allegations are not required, the Supreme Court has ruled in earlier cases that Rule 8 does require sufficient factual allegations, assumed to be true, that state a claim that is "plausible on its face."

Ashcroft and Mueller asserted their official acts were cloaked with "qualified immunity" and moved to dismiss the suit. The federal trial judge in Manhattan, in denying the FRCP 8 motion for summary judgment, held Iqbal's detailed allegations of abuse were sufficient to survive dismissal. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, rejecting a heightened pleading standard in a well-reasoned 92-page opinion, concluding:
Nevertheless, as a result of the Supreme Court’s precedents interpreting Rule 8(a), it is possible that the incumbent Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a former Attorney General of the United States will have to submit to discovery, and possibly to a jury trial, regarding Iqbal’s claims. If so, these officials -FBI Director Robert Mueller and former Attorney General John Ashcroft -may be required to comply with inherently onerous discovery requests probing, inter alia, their possible knowledge of actions taken by subordinates at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Prisons at a time when Ashcroft and Mueller were trying to cope with a national and international security emergency unprecedented in the history of the American Republic.
The Supreme Court disagreed with the Second Circuit's rationale, reversing the intermediate appellate court's decision. Many legal professionals now fear that Iqbal's failure to state a claim will be the blue print for federal judges to routinely prune their dockets of all-manner of plaintiff's claims.

In reversing the Second Circuit, Justice Kennedy's opinion stated:
Iqbal’s pleadings do not comply with Rule 8... Several of his allegations—that petitioners agreed to subject him to harsh conditions as a matter of policy, solely on account of discriminatory factors and for no legitimate penological interest; that Ashcroft was that policy’s “principal architect”; and that Mueller was “instrumental” in its adoption and execution—are conclusory and not entitled to be assumed true. Moreover, the factual allegations that the FBI, under Mueller, arrested and detained thousands of Arab Muslim men, and that he and Ashcroft approved the detention policy, do not plausibly suggest that petitioners purposefully discriminated on prohibited grounds. Given that the September 11 attacks were perpetrated by Arab Muslims, it is not surprising that a legitimate policy directing law enforcement to arrest and detain individuals because of their suspected link to the attacks would produce a disparate, incidental impact on Arab Muslims, even though the policy’s purpose was to target neither Arabs nor Muslims. Even if the complaint’s well-pleaded facts gave rise to a plausible inference that Iqbal’s arrest was the result of unconstitutional discrimination, that inference alone would not entitle him to relief: His claims against petitioners rest solely on their ostensible policy of holding detainees categorized as “of high interest,” but the complaint does not contain facts plausibly showing that their policy was based on discriminatory factors.
In the 18-months since the Iqbal decision, the case has attracted the attention, and ire, of many legal professionals fearful this precedent will block access to federal court. In particular, plaintiffs alleging employment discrimination now face a higher hurdle at the pleading stage.

Case in point: last month the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled the former U.S. Solicitor General (the government's litigator) about the case. The Democratic senators complained that the case will prevent legitimate cases from seeing the light of day in federal court.

Michigan Connection: U.S. Representative John Conyers has co-sponsored a bill seeking to re-write FRCP 8(a) such that litigants bringing their claims will not face sure dismissal based on the high court's Iqbal decision. Stay tuned.

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