Can Speech Act Theory Save Notice Pleading?
66 Pages Posted: 3 Jun 2020
Date Written: May 29, 2020
Countless scholars have debated—and lower courts have attempted to apply—the plausibility pleading regime that the Supreme Court introduced in Twombly and Iqbal. Iqbal took Twombly’s requirement that a complaint plead plausibly and turned it into a two-step test. Under that test, the life or death of a lawsuit rests on the distinction between “well-pleaded” and “conclusory” allegations. Only the former are assumed true on a motion to dismiss. Seven decades of pleading precedent had taken a sensible, if unstable, approach to the truth assumption, making a single cut between factual contentions (assumed true) and legal conclusions (ignored). But Iqbal redrew those lines. It treats as legal conclusions an entire subset of factual allegations and does so whenever, in the court’s view, those facts are presented too generally or too rhetorically. To date, the contours of “conclusory” have not been pinned down by legal-theoretic approaches, while lower court reactions range from conflicting to confused to avoidant. It is clearer than ever that Iqbal left an analytical void in the wake of its novel pleading inquiry—a void that must be filled in a stable way while recognizing the FRCP’s normative commitments.
That way is through speech act theory. Speech act theory is a philosophy of language that employs a descriptive methodology for understanding what speakers mean with their words. A speech act- theoretic approach targets Iqbal’s central flaws—failing to treat pleading as an act of communication, and ignoring how the pleader intends her allegations to function in the pleading conversation. Indeed, Iqbal makes the judge’s omniscient view of meaning the decisive factor. Furthermore, Iqbal conflates two types of speech acts whose difference was vital pre-Iqbal: allegations meant to report, which merit the truth assumption, and allegations meant to accuse, which do not. Speech act theory shores up pre-Iqbal instability and offers a consistent analytical approach for granting allegations the assumption of truth based on communicative meaning. Using speech act theory to set the parameters of “conclusory” also opens the doors of discovery to complaints that do their job as the FRCP intended: providing functional fair notice of the nature of the plaintiff’s claims and the grounds on which they rest.
Keywords: Civil Procedure, Law and Rhetoric, Philosophy of Language, Speech Act Theory, Pleading, Iqbal
JEL Classification: K10, K19, K40, K41, K49
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation