Last week, Prof. Edward A. Hartnett (of Seton Hall University School of Law) posted Responding to Twombly and Iqbal: Where Do We Go from Here?
Hartnett’s idea was eminently reasonable:
I also offer my own proposal, which focuses on the core issue at stake in debates about Twombly and Iqbal: should a plaintiff be able to obtain discovery in an effort to uncover evidence without which he or she cannot prevail?
Hartnett proposes amending Rule 12 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to include:
Rule 12(j): Allegations Likely To Have Evidentiary Support After a Reasonable Opportunity for Discovery
If, on a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) or 12(c) that has not been deferred until trial, the claim sought to be dismissed includes an allegation specifically identified as provided in Rule 11(b)(3) as likely to have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for discovery, the court must either (1) assume the truth of the allegation, or (2) decide whether the allegation is likely to have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for discovery. In deciding whether an allegation is likely to have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for discovery, the court must consider the parties‘ access to evidence in the absence of discovery and state on the record the reason for its decision.
If the court decides that the allegation is likely to have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for discovery, it must allow for that discovery, under the standards of Rule 26, and deny the motion to dismiss. If the court decides that the allegation is not likely to have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for discovery, the court must treat the motion as one for summary judgment under Rule 56, and provide all parties a reasonable opportunity to present all the material that is pertinent to the motion.
Again, eminently reasonable. Such an addition would immediately focus litigation on the real issues, thereby (1) enabling plaintiffs to conduct discovery into the most important areas while also (2) empowering defendants to have cases dismissed—prior to full discovery—if the plaintiff won’t be able to prove an essential element of their case.
How could anyone think that was unfair?
The defense bar champions at Drug and Device Law tried to manufacturer an objection, but the argument degenerated into blather and insults. They barely even mention the details of Hartnett’s proposal. Instead, they summarily dismissed him with:
Most of these proposals (except Professor Burbank’s) actually go far beyond Twombly/Iqbal and would overrule all or most of the prior precedent we cited above. That strikes us as facially overkill and indicative of unexpressed (and in some cases, ulterior) motives at work.
We understand that a lot of academics feel that they have to help their students get jobs, or else eventually they won’t have jobs either. Thus, they tend to support anything and everything that results in more, rather than less, litigation.
Then again, an accusation of "ulterior motives" probably would have meant more if it didn’t come from someone paid by the hour to ensure corporations pay as little as possible to the people and families they hurt.
Frankly, reading through the post, I can’t help but wonder if Beck et al. indeed have some "ulterior motive" in misrepresenting how defense lawyers use Ashcroft v. Iqbal in their practice:
So when we get a complaint, we look to see whether, there’s at least one actual fact pleaded that supports each essential element of a cause of action. A plaintiff can plead more if s/he so pleases, but there has to be at least one – otherwise we’ll probably file a Twombly/Iqbal motion.
The implied concession there—that they won’t file a motion to dismiss if "there’s at least one actual fact pleaded that supports each essential element of a cause of action"—is rubbish. They don’t run a charity over there at Dechert: if you file a case against one of their clients, they will come up with any argument they can to get it dismissed.
And that’s where the problem with Twombly / Iqbal—really, just Iqbal—comes in. Every time a case is filed today, the defendant inevitably files a motion to dismiss claiming that the "actual facts" plead aren’t "facts" at all, they’re "conclusions," and so are not, under Iqbal, entitled to an assumption of truth.
What’s the difference between a "fact" and a "conclusion?" Merriam-Webster says:
fact: an actual occurrence
conclusion: a reasoned judgment
Let me ask you, Dear Reader: who really won more votes in Florida in 2000, Bush or Gore?
Is your answer a "fact" or a "conclusion?" Do you know it as an actual occurrence, or did you make a reasoned judgment?
The problem with Iqbal is that it instructs courts—at the very beginning of the lawsuit, when they have nothing in front of them but a "short and plain" complaint—to perform a wildly subjective analysis about which allegations are merely "conclusions" and which of the non-conclusory allegations are "plausible."
There’s nothing new about that problem. It’s the same problem that prompted Rule 8—the Rule supposedly interpreted by Iqbal—to be enacted in the first place:
You used to have the requirement that a complaint must allege the “facts” constituting the “cause of action.” I can show you thousands of cases that have gone wrong on dialectical, psychological, and technical argument as to whether a pleading contained a “cause of action”; and of whether certain allegations were allegations of “fact” or were “conclusions of law” or were merely “evidentiary” as distinguished from “ultimate” facts. In these rules there is no requirement that the pleader must plead a technically perfect “cause of action” or that he must allege “facts” or “ultimate facts.”
Rules of Civil Procedure for the District Courts of the United States: Hearings Before the H. Comm. on the Judiciary, 75th Cong. 94 (1938) (statement of Edgar B. Tolman, Secretary of the Advisory Committee on Rules for Civil Procedure Appointed by the Supreme Court); quoted by p.4 of Professor Stephen Burbank’s testimony before the Senate.
The whole point of Rule 8 was to ensure that the right to civil justice didn’t turn on metaphysical word games.
And yet we’re supposed to come full circle because, as Beck et al. continue,
Twombly/Iqbal are about reining in the cost of litigation; we might feel differently about Professor Hartnett’s proposal if it required payment of all a defendant’s costs of “appropriate” (the Article’s term) discovery – should designated allegations nonetheless turn out to be unfounded. But under the proposal as offered, there’s no penalty for over-designation. If it’s one thing that the fifty-year life span of Conley established, it’s that unrestrained pleading imposes huge discovery costs on defendants. Even Professor Burbank (who really tried hard) was reduced to relying upon a single study of tiny cases in which even then 25% of the parties believed the process was too expensive. The excessive cost of modern discovery is simply not a issue capable of dispute any longer.
At least Burbank actually cited something. Defense lawyers think they’re entitled to assert the cost of discovery—a cost due primarily to their own practice of relentlessly frustrating discovery at every turn—is "excessive" through sheer ipse dixit.
Sounds like a "conclusion" to me, not an "actual fact."