Not too long ago, I argued that Ashcroft v. Iqbal was not nearly as important as commentators thought, and that the sky had not fallen on plaintiffs. Instead, Iqbal merely put into words the standard that numerous courts had already applied to large-scale litigation without saying as much. I also argued that Iqbal in particular involved a very unique circumstance — a Bivens suit against top-level official — and so was easily distinguishable from the vast majority of civil litigation.
It’s not easy being green.
But I’m no longer alone.
Drug & Device Law has more news, referencing a law review article and a post by a law professor who, like me, but in a more scholarly fashion, reject the argument that six paragraphs of Iqbal radically re-rewrote the rules of civil procedure.
"They’re just professors," the defense bar nay-sayers will nay-say, "Iqbal has nonetheless overruled centuries of precedent, making it nearly impossible to file a lawsuit against anyone anymore."
I, of course, disagree. So how about I up the ante with recent opinions from two of the most respected conservatives judges in the federal appellate courts?
Like Judge Frank Easterbrook:
Lusby contends that Rolls-Royce defrauded the United States about the quality of the turbine blades in the T56 engine. The complaint alleges that five contracts between Rolls-Royce and the United States require all of the engine’s parts to meet particular specifications; that the parts did not do so (and the complaint describes tests said to prove this deficiency); that Rolls-Royce knew that the parts were non-compliant (not only because Lusby told his supervisors this but also because audits by Rolls-Royce’s design and quality-assurance departments confirmed Lusby’s conclusions); and that Rolls-Royce nonetheless certified that the parts met the contracts’ specifications. The complaint names specific parts shipped on specific dates, and it relates details of payment. Simple breach of contract is not fraud, but making a promise while planning not to keep it is fraud, see Wharf (Holdings) Ltd. v. United Int’l Holdings, Inc., 532 U.S. 588, 121 S. Ct. 1776, 149 L. Ed. 2d 845 (2001), and this complaint alleges the promise, the intent not to keep that promise, and the details of non-conformity. What else might be required to narrate, with particularity, the circumstances that violate 31 U.S.C. §3729(a)(1)?
Rolls-Royce’s answer is: the specific request for payment. Lusby has not seen any of the invoices and representations that Rolls-Royce submitted to its customers. He knows about shipments and payments, but he does not have access to the paperwork. The district court held that, unless Lusby has at least one of Rolls-Royce’s billing packages, he lacks the required particularity. Since a relator is unlikely to have those documents unless he works in the defendant’s accounting department, the district court’s ruling takes a big bite out of qui tam litigation.
We don’t think it essential for a relator to produce the invoices (and accompanying representations) at the outset of the suit. True, it is essential to show a false statement. But much knowledge is inferential–people are convicted beyond a reasonable doubt of conspiracy without a written contract to commit a future crime–and the inference that Lusby proposes is a plausible one.
United States ex rel. Lusby v. Rolls-Royce Corp., No. 08-3593, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 14119, at *10–11 (7th Cir. Jun. 30, 2009)(reversing dismissal of qui tam / false claims act complaint).
And Judge Richard Posner:
In our initial thinking about the case, however, we were reluctant to endorse the district court’s citation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 167 L. Ed. 2d 929 (2007), fast becoming the citation du jour in Rule 12(b)(6) cases, as authority for the dismissal of this suit. The Court held that in complex litigation (the case itself was an antitrust suit) the defendant is not to be put to the cost of pretrial discovery–a cost that in complex litigation can be so steep as to coerce a settlement on terms favorable to the plaintiff even when his claim is very weak–unless the complaint says enough about the case to permit an inference that it may well have real merit. The present case, however, is not complex. Were this suit to survive dismissal and proceed to the summary judgment stage, it would be unlikely to place on the defendants a heavy burden of compliance with demands for pretrial discovery. The parties did not negotiate face to face over the termination agreement, and though some of the negotiations were over the telephone rather than in letters or emails, Smith recorded those and the transcripts are attached to his complaint. So almost all the potentially relevant evidence is already in the record.
But Bell Atlantic was extended, a week after we heard oral argument in the present case, in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009)–over the dissent of Justice Souter, the author of the majority opinion in Bell Atlantic–to all cases, even a case (Iqbal itself) in which the court of appeals had ‘promise[d] petitioners minimally intrusive discovery.’ Id. at 1954. Yet Iqbal is special in its own way, because the defendants had pleaded a defense of official immunity and the Court said that the promise of minimally intrusive discovery ‘provides especially cold comfort in this pleading context, where we are impelled to give real content to the concept of qualified immunity for high-level officials who must be neither deterred nor detracted from the vigorous performance of their duties.’ Id. (emphasis added).
So maybe neither Bell Atlantic nor Iqbal governs here. It doesn’t matter. It is apparent from the complaint and the plaintiff’s arguments, without reference to anything else, that his case has no merit. That is enough to justify, under any reasonable interpretation of Rule 12(b)(6), the dismissal of the suit.
Smith v. Duffey, No. 08-2804, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 17211, at *11–13 (7th Cir. Aug. 3, 2009).
Neither Easterbrook nor Posner are bleeding hearts, and neither has shown much sympathy for plaintiffs in the past. Yet, even they believe the Twombly and Iqbal chatter is overblown.
Chalk two victories up for plaintiffs. It seems the battle over pleading standards is far from over.