While Effusive, 'Conclusory' is Still Quite Elusive: The Story of a Word, Iqbal, and a Perplexing Lexical Inquiry of Supreme Importance
124 Pages Posted: 30 May 2011 Last revised: 18 Mar 2013
Date Written: May 27, 2011
The meaning of the word “conclusory” seems really, quite elusory. Conclusory is a widespread, common, and effusive word in the modern legal lexicon. Yet you would not necessarily know that by looking through many dictionaries. “Conclusory” has been a late comer to the pages of most dictionaries. Even today, not all dictionaries include the word “conclusory”, those that do have only recently adopted it, and the small number of available dictionary definitions seem to struggle to capture the word’s usage in the legal world. Yet the word “conclusory” has taken center stage in the procedural plays of civil litigation with the help of the 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal. This Article attempts to explore this definitional perplexity.
Available dictionary definitions at best give us a general idea of what “conclusory” means but can hardly resolve the perplexity of how the word is used to filter the acceptable from the unacceptable pleadings. The “conclusory” standard in Iqbal might turn out to be nothing more than a “I know it when I see it” standard. There is a sense in Iqbal that conclusory statements are like procedural pornography so profane and lacking in quality that they are not entitled to protection of otherwise liberal pleading standards.
Part I documents the usage of the word “conclusory” and the upward trend in its use throughout the past century. Part II summarizes the use of the word “conclusory” in the pleadings standards established in Twombly and Iqbal. Part III then surveys the literature on Iqbal. Part IV concludes that the dictionary definitions are of little utility in understanding the meaning of “conclusory” in Iqbal and do not provide clear guidance to litigants or the courts in applying Iqbal’s pleadings standards in that regard. Such a conclusion should not be surprising, I contend, in light of the inherent limitations in dictionaries themselves. Part V presents two primary conclusions: (1) the Iqbal “conclusory” prong has a low degree of predictability in its application and is largely subject to judicial interpretation of pleadings on a highly individualized, judge-specific, and case-by-case basis; and (2) one of the only methods available to operate within this high degree of uncertainty is to base one’s understanding of the Iqbal test on the historical usages of the word within past court decisions. Appendix E provides a reference list of U.S. Supreme Court cases that have used the term “conclusory” with minor annotation to indicate some context of the usage.
This Article will attempt to tell the history and story of one word – “conclusory”. At the end, the reader will still not know what exactly that one word means. But therein lies the point of the exercise upon which this Article embarks. It is a seat on the observation deck to the evolutionary spread of a word into our lexicon, a revelation about the fallibility of dictionaries, a recognition of the sometimes indeterminate use of language, a caution that a word’s meaning is seldom revealed in isolation, a lesson on the importance of contextual analysis, a debate about the utility of flexibility in standards, and a charge in the face of unavoidable confusion to make the best use of skill and analogy to operate within the constraints of a new judicially-demanded ante for entering the game of civil litigation.
Keywords: conclusory, Iqbal, Twombly, dictionaries, definitions, civil procedure, pleadings, lexicography, legal usage, word meanings, contextual interpetation
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation