5th Circuit Decision on Applicable Pleading Standard in §1983 Cases Reversed and Remanded by U.S. Supreme Court

On November 10, 2014, the United States Supreme Court, evoking an unusual process, granted Tracey Johnson’s Petition for Certiorari, reversed the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that Johnson from which Johnson appealed, and remanded the case to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi. Ordinarily the U.S. Supreme Court will grant certiorari, after which time briefing will be completed and then argument heard, and finally a decision rendered. In a per curiam opinion, however, this customary process was bypassed resulting in a summary proceeding. 

The plaintiffs here claimed that they were fired by the board of aldermen of Shelby as a result of bringing to light criminal activities of one of the alderman, and that this termination violated due process afforded them by the Fourteenth Amendment. The United States District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the City on the basis that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim for violations of 42 U.S.C. §1983 in their complaint, and as a result their pleading failed to appropriately provide notice to the City of the claims being made against it so that it could adequately formulate a defense. The Fifth Circuit affirmed this decision on appeal stating that the pleading standards required by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were not met. The United States Supreme Court reversed this decision making clear that the pleading standards required by the Federal Rules require a “short and plain statement of the claim” of the factual basis of the claims being made, and an “imperfect statement of a legal theory” was not sufficient to support dismissal under Fed. Rule Civ. P. 8(a)(2).

In recent years, the defense bar has relied upon Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) to obtain early dismissal of claim(s) on the basis that the plaintiff’s complaint does not articulate facts to support each element of a legal theory claimed. The Supreme Court’s summary disposition here and restatement of the liberal intent of the pleading standard set forth in Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2), while not changing the standard, is certainly supportive of a an interpretation which could result in even fewer motions to dismiss being granted. This, of course, results in increased costs of litigation as the case may require discovery and involved motion practice before resolution.