Heightened Requirements for Civil Rights Claims?

Heightened Requirements for Civil Rights Claims?

We have now seen that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide for heightened pleading requirements in fraud claims. But can federal courts apply heightened pleading requirements to claims not covered by Rule 9(b)? This question has come up repeatedly in the federal civil rights litigation context, with the Supreme Court consistently rejecting such heightened requirements.

Professor Arthur Miller has described the Supreme Court’s unwillingness to apply a heightened requirement where no rule or statute, such as Rule 9(b) or the PSLRA, creates one:

[One] method by which courts have attempted to combat the “litigation explosion” is by creating heightened pleading burdens even though Rule 8(a)(2) only requires “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Despite a rich history of judges interpreting that language with great liberality, some courts adopted the view that the degree of pleading specificity required varies according to the complexity and/or the supposedly “disfavored” character of the litigation or underlying substantive law, making some cases more vulnerable to dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) than others.

In Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence & Coordination Unit, [507 U.S. 163 (1993)], an action arising under Section 1983 of Title 42 [which enables civil lawsuits against the government for deprivation of certain rights], the Supreme Court unequivocally held that “heightened pleading” requirements are impermissibly at odds with the language of Rule 8, at least in cases brought against municipalities. . . .

Then, in Crawford-El v. Britton [523 U.S. 574 (1998)], the Supreme Court rejected an attempt by the District of Columbia Circuit to require a heightened proof standard to survive summary judgment, which had developed out of a line of decisions requiring more detailed pleading in Section 1983 cases alleging an official’s unconstitutional motive.  The Court specifically remarked that “our cases demonstrate that questions regarding pleading, discovery, and summary judgment are most frequently and most effectively resolved either by the rulemaking process or the legislative process.”

Arthur Miller, “The Pretrial Rush to Judgment: Are the ‘Litigation Explosion,’ ‘Liability Crisis,’ and Efficiency Clichés Eroding Our Day in Court and Jury Trial Commitments?” 78 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 982, 1009-11 (2003) (internal footnotes omitted).

The Court most recently addressed the issue of heightened pleading requirements for civil rights actions in Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506 (2002). A unanimous Court again rejected a heightened pleading standard sought by defendants, this time in an employment discrimination case. Justice Thomas wrote:

This case presents the question whether a complaint in an employment discrimination lawsuit must contain specific facts establishing a prima facie case of discrimination . . . . We hold that an employment discrimination complaint need not include such facts and instead must contain only “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 8(a)(2).

Petitioner Akos Swierkiewicz is a native of Hungary, who at the time of his complaint was 53 years old. In April 1989, petitioner began working for respondent Sorema N.A., a reinsurance company headquartered in New York and principally owned and controlled by a French parent corporation. Petitioner was initially employed in the position of senior vice president and chief underwriting officer (CUO). Nearly six years later, François M. Chavel, respondent’s Chief Executive Officer, demoted petitioner to a marketing and services position and transferred the bulk of his underwriting responsibilities to Nicholas Papadopoulo, a 32-year-old who, like Mr. Chavel, is a French national. About a year later, Mr. Chavel stated that he wanted to “energize” the underwriting department and appointed Mr. Papadopoulo as CUO. Petitioner claims that Mr. Papadopoulo had only one year of underwriting experience at the time he was promoted, and therefore was less experienced and less qualified to be CUO than he, since at that point he had 26 years of experience in the insurance industry.

Following his demotion, petitioner contends that he “was isolated by Mr. Chavel . . . excluded from business decisions and meetings and denied the opportunity to reach his true potential at SOREMA.” . . . Petitioner unsuccessfully attempted to meet with Mr. Chavel to discuss his discontent. Finally, in April 1997, petitioner sent a memo to Mr. Chavel outlining his grievances and requesting a severance package. Two weeks later, respondent’s general counsel presented petitioner with two options: He could either resign without a severance package or be dismissed. Mr. Chavel fired petitioner after he refused to resign.

Petitioner filed a lawsuit alleging that he had been terminated on account of his national origin in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, . . . and on account of his age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) . . . . The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed petitioner’s complaint because it found that he “ha[d] not adequately alleged a prima facie case, in that he ha[d] not adequately alleged circumstances that support an inference of discrimination.” . . . The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal, relying on its settled precedent, which requires a plaintiff in an employment discrimination complaint to allege facts constituting a prima facie case of discrimination . . . . We granted certiorari . . . and now reverse.

. . .

[T]he Court of Appeals’ heightened pleading standard in employment discrimination cases conflicts with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), which provides that a complaint must include only “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Such a statement must simply “give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff’s claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957). This simplified notice pleading standard relies on liberal discovery rules and summary judgment motions to define disputed facts and issues and to dispose of unmeritorious claims. See id., at 47-48, 78 S.Ct. 99; Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence and Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 168-169, 113 S.Ct. 1160, 122 L.Ed.2d 517 (1993). “The provisions for discovery are so flexible and the provisions for pretrial procedure and summary judgment so effective, that attempted surprise in federal practice is aborted very easily, synthetic issues detected, and the gravamen of the dispute brought frankly into the open for the inspection of the court.” 5 C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1202, p. 76 (2d ed. 1990).

Rule 8(a)’s simplified pleading standard applies to all civil actions, with limited exceptions. Rule 9(b), for example, provides for greater particularity in all averments of fraud or mistake. This Court, however, has declined to extend such exceptions to other contexts. In Leatherman we stated: “[T]he Federal Rules do address in Rule 9(b) the question of the need for greater particularity in pleading certain actions, but do not include among the enumerated actions any reference to complaints alleging municipal liability under §1983. Expressio unius est exclusio alterius.” 507 U.S., at 168, 113 S.Ct. 1160. [Expressio unius is a doctrine of statutory interpretation meaning that the express inclusion of one thing in a statute (or rule) implies the exclusion of another thing that was not mentioned.] Just as Rule 9(b) makes no mention of municipal liability under . . . 42 U.S.C. § 1983 . . . , neither does it refer to employment discrimination. Thus, complaints in these cases, as in most others, must satisfy only the simple requirements of Rule 8(a).

. . . Given the Federal Rules’ simplified standard for pleading, “[a] court may dismiss a complaint only if it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations.” . . . If a pleading fails to specify the allegations in a manner that provides sufficient notice, a defendant can move for a more definite statement under Rule 12(e) before responding. Moreover, claims lacking merit may be dealt with through summary judgment under Rule 56. The liberal notice pleading of Rule 8(a) is the starting point of a simplified pleading system, which was adopted to focus litigation on the merits of a claim. See Conley, supra, at 48, 78 S.Ct. 99 (“The Federal Rules reject the approach that pleading is a game of skill in which one misstep by counsel may be decisive to the outcome and accept the principle that the purpose of pleading is to facilitate a proper decision on the merits”).

Applying the relevant standard, petitioner’s complaint easily satisfies the requirements of Rule 8(a) because it gives respondent fair notice of the basis for petitioner’s claims. Petitioner alleged that he had been terminated on account of his national origin in violation of Title VII and on account of his age in violation of the ADEA. . . . His complaint detailed the events leading to his termination, provided relevant dates, and included the ages and nationalities of at least some of the relevant persons involved with his termination. . . . These allegations give respondent fair notice of what petitioner’s claims are and the grounds upon which they rest. . . . In addition, they state claims upon which relief could be granted under Title VII and the ADEA.

Respondent argues that allowing lawsuits based on conclusory allegations of discrimination to go forward will burden the courts and encourage disgruntled employees to bring unsubstantiated suits. . . . Whatever the practical merits of this argument, the Federal Rules do not contain a heightened pleading standard for employment discrimination suits. A requirement of greater specificity for particular claims is a result that “must be obtained by the process of amending the Federal Rules, and not by judicial interpretation.” Leatherman, supra, at 168, 113 S.Ct. 1160. Furthermore, Rule 8(a) establishes a pleading standard without regard to whether a claim will succeed on the merits. “Indeed it may appear on the face of the pleadings that a recovery is very remote and unlikely but that is not the test.”