Tuesday, December 08, 2009, 1:15 PM

Fourth Circuit Speaks to Twombly

The Fourth Circuit recently provided guidance on what constitutes a legally sufficient complaint after the Supreme Court's Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009) decisions.

In Francis v. Giacomelli, the Fourth Circuit recognized that the Supreme Court's Twombly and Iqbal rulings have dramatically changed the law related to Rule 12(b)(6) motions. The Court rejected the plaintiff's position that "a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) ... must be denied unless ‘it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the [well-pleaded] allegations’ in the Complaint[.]'" After Iqbal,

the legal sufficiency of a complaint is measured by whether it meets the standards for a pleading stated in Rule 8 (providing general rules of pleading), Rule 9 (providing rules for pleading special matters), Rule 10 (specifying pleading form), Rule 11 (requiring the signing of a pleading and stating its significance), and Rule 12(b)(6) (requiring that a complaint state a claim upon which relief can be granted).

The requirements of these rules are designed to not only provide the defendant with notice of the claims against her, but also to "provide criteria for defining issues for trial and for early disposition of inappropriate complaints."

The Fourth Circuit went on to discuss that under Iqbal, courts must engage in a multi-step process to determine whether a complaint is legally sufficient. A court should first determine which portions of a complaint constitute facts entitled to the presumption of truth and those portions of the complaint that are nothing more than labels, conclusions, or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action. After making this distinction, the court must engage in a context-specific review and determine whether the facts contained in the complaint establish a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.

The "facial plausibility" standard - while lacking a concrete definition - requires the complaint to allege sufficient facts so that the court may infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct on the part of the defendant. "[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged — but it has not ‘show[n]’ — ‘that the pleader is entitled to relief,’" as required by Rule 8."

Because members of the bench and bar are still attempting to determine the contours of the facial plausibility standard, it is likely that Francis will be just one of a number of opinions that address the impact of Twombly and Iqbal on civil litigation.

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