Measuring the Impact of Plausibility Pleading
69 Pages Posted: 8 May 2015 Last revised: 19 Dec 2015
Date Written: May 6, 2015
In the United States, modern civil procedure began in 1938 with the promulgation of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. From then, until very recently, the notice pleading standard – emphasizing simplicity and brevity in pleadings over technicality – was held up as an example of the Rule’s commitment to adjudicating the merits of every claim and avoiding premature and wasteful disputes that often had little to do with merits. In Bell Atlantic v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, announced in 2007 and 2009, the United States Supreme Court revisited the notice pleading standard, announcing that “plausibility pleading” must now be the standard for assessing whether a complaint’s allegations are sufficient to justify moving to discovery and merits adjudication. This Article offers a comprehensive analysis of the impact of the plausibility pleading standard on resolutions of motions to dismiss in almost 4200 cases from 15 different judicial districts, representing all 12 general jurisdiction circuit courts of appeal. Relying on data obtained from all published and unpublished opinions in these districts for the years 2006 and 2010, this study provides the most detailed analysis to date of the impact that plausibility pleading and other variables have had on the resolutions of motions to dismiss in civil cases.
The data reported here suggest that many prior studies have failed adequately to capture the full impact of Iqbal and Twombly on the resolution of motions to dismiss in federal court. First, this Article provides data showing that dismissals of employment discrimination and civil rights cases have risen significantly in the wake of Iqbal. These results remained significant even after controlling for potential confounding factors. Second, the data also suggest that certain factors interact with the plausibility standard to influence the resolution of a motion to dismiss, including perhaps most importantly the institutional status of the plaintiff and defendant. Individuals have fared poorly under the plausibility regime, at least when compared to corporate and governmental agents and entities. These effects remained significant even after controlling for several potentially confounding variables. Finally, by analyzing data on the progress of cases after a motion to dismiss has been adjudicated, this Article shows that the advent of heightened pleading has not resulted in higher quality claims.
Along with providing an important descriptive account of the impact that plausibility pleading has had on the course of federal litigation, this Article suggests two heretofore unexplored bases for questioning the wisdom of the transition initiated by Twombly and solidified by Iqbal. First, while one should not be shocked by the observation that civil rights and employment discrimination claims suffer under the plausibility pleading regime, one should still be troubled by it given the historical role that federal courts have played in such cases. Second, to the extent that the plausibility regime has exacerbated inequality in the courts between individual litigants on one hand and corporate and governmental entities on the other, without increasing overall case quality, there should be wider agreement that such a change is to be lamented.
Keywords: pleading, Iqbal, Twombly
JEL Classification: K41
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation