If you’re a reader of this blog, you’re undoubtedly familiar with Bell Atlantic v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, a pair of Supreme Court cases which altered the pleading standards applicable to civil cases filed in federal court.

Defense lawyers have jumped all over those two opinions in an attempt to dismiss lawsuits — particularly complex commercial class actions, like antitrust cases — before any discovery can be taken. Every lawsuit, they claim, no matter how detailed and compelling, is "implausible" under Twombly and Iqbal. I taught CLEs to help other trial lawyers defeat those arguments.

Back when the Iqbal opinion first came out, I wasn’t impressed. Sure, the Supreme Court added the word "plausible" to the Rule 8 standard, but frankly I didn’t think Twombly or Iqbal would make Rule 8 and Rule 12(b)(6) any more dispositive than they already were. Before either of those cases were decided, if a judge read a plaintiff’s complaint and thought that the claim was "implausible," they would dismiss it under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) for failing to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Twombly and Iqbal simply codified a practice that was already widespread in the federal judiciary.

That’s not to say I think the opinions do nothing — by way of their vague, ambiguous and amorphous language, they confuse a lot of judges into arbitrarily deeming certain allegations to be "conclusions" instead of "facts" (and even Judge Posner can’t figure out the "plausibility v. probability" distinction) — but the underlying legal principles are the same.

I said as much at the time. Time has proven me correct.

Almost exactly a year ago I posted Second Circuit Revives Digital Music Price-Fixing Case, Takes A Bite Out Of Twombly, noting a Second Circuit opinion which held:

Although the Twombly court acknowledged that for purposes of summary judgment a plaintiff must present evidence that tends to exclude the possibility of independent action, 550 U.S. at 554, and that the district court below had held that plaintiffs must allege additional facts that tended to exclude independent self-interested conduct, id. at 552, it specifically held that, to survive a motion to dismiss, plaintiffs need only “enough factual matter (taken as true) to suggest that an agreement was made,” id. at 556; see also 2 Areeda & Hovenkamp § 307d1 (3d ed. 2007) (“[T]he Supreme Court did not hold that the same standard applies to a complaint and a discovery record . . . . The ‘plausibly suggesting’ threshold for a conspiracy complaint remains considerably less than the ‘tends to rule out the possibility’ standard for summary judgment.”).

Defendants next argue that Twombly requires that a plaintiff identify the specific time, place, or person related to each conspiracy allegation. This is also incorrect. The Twombly court noted, in dicta, that had the claim of agreement in that case not rested on the parallel conduct described in the complaint, “we doubt that the . . . references to an agreement among the [Baby Bells] would have given the notice required by Rule 8 . . [because] the pleadings mentioned no specific time, place, or person involved in the alleged conspiracies.” 550 at 565 n.10. In this case, as in Twombly, the claim of agreement rests on the parallel conduct described in the complaint. Therefore, plaintiffs were not required to mention a specific time, place or person involved in each conspiracy allegation. 

The Second Circuit’s opinion was significant. The case was right up Twombly‘s alley — an allegation of an illegal agreement in violation of antitrust laws, the details of which were still known only to the defendants — and so the Second Circuit’s reinstatement of the case dealt a powerful blow to the defense lawyers who had been arguing that Twombly and Iqbal had slammed the courthouse shut on plaintiffs who couldn’t prove their whole case before even filing it.

The record companies in that case weren’t inclined to throw in the towel, so they filed a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court arguing, as you would imagine, that the Second Circuit failed to follow Twombly and Iqbal.

A funny thing happened yesterday. Tucked in among pages and pages of summary orders at the Supreme Court was this:

10-263
SONY MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT, ET AL. V. STARR, KEVIN, ET AL.
The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied. The Chief Justice and Justice Sotomayor took no part in the consideration or decision of this petition.

The Second Circuit’s opinion thus stands firm. Even after Twombly and Iqbal, all a plaintiff needs to allege, even in a complex antitrust case, is “enough factual matter (taken as true) to suggest" the elements of the claim.

That’s the same as the Third Circuit recently held in In re Ins. Brokerage Antitrust Litig., 618 F.3d 300, 314 (3d Cir. 2010) and later applied to all cases, including complex cases, in W. Penn Allegheny Health Sys. v. UPMC, No. 09-4468, (3d Cir. November 29, 2010)(precedential).

In short, the Circuit Courts have taken a hard look at Twombly and Iqbal and have rejected the numerous attempts by big corporations to slam the courthouse doors shut on meritorious cases, and the Supreme Court hasn’t stopped those Courts from setting the record straight.

In celebration, below the fold are some plaintiff-friendly precedential opinions over the last year in various Courts of Appeals (in addition to the Second Circuit and Third Circuit opinions above). 


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By "these," he was, by way of an email to others at

Last week, after more than a year of drafting following oral argument, and nearly two years after the original District Court order, a Third Circuit panel (Chief Judge Scirica and Judges Fisher and Greenberg) issued their magnum opus on pleading Section 1 antitrust violations after Twombly and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations ("RICO") Act "enterprises" after Boyle in the consolidated Multi-District Litigation In re: Insurance Brokerage Antitrust Litigation.

The plaintiffs alleged a massive, "global" conspiracy among the major insurance companies and insurance brokers to artificially allocate customers and rig prices for commercial insurance:

Plaintiffs are purchasers of commercial and employee benefit insurance, and defendants are insurers and insurance brokers that deal in those lines of insurance. According to plaintiffs, defendants entered into unlawful, deceptive schemes to allocate purchasers among particular groups of defendant insurers. The complaints assert that conspiring brokers funneled unwitting clients to their co-conspirator insurers, which were insulated from competition; in return, the insurers awarded the brokers contingent commission payments—concealed from the insurance purchasers and surreptitiously priced into insurance premiums—based on the volume of premium dollars steered their way. As a result of this scheme, plaintiffs allege they paid inflated prices for their insurance coverage and were generally denied the benefits of a competitive market. The question on appeal is whether plaintiffs have adequately pled either a per se violation of § 1 of the Sherman Act (plaintiffs have foresworn a full-scale rule-of-reason analysis) or a violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Concluding they had not, the District Court dismissed the complaints. 

(Here’s the First Amended Complaint; the Second Amended Complaint was, I believe, sealed).

§ 1 of the Sherman Act and § 1962 of the RICO Act are almost constitutional in their breadth and power. Here’s the relevant part of § 1 of the Sherman Act:

Every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is declared to be illegal.

And here’s § 1962(c) of the RICO Act:

It shall be unlawful for any person employed by or associated with any enterprise engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce, to conduct or participate, directly or indirectly, in the conduct of such enterprise’s affairs through a pattern of racketeering activity or collection of unlawful debt.

Such breadth is a blessing and a curse for plaintiffs; like with the Bill of Rights, § 1 of the Sherman Act and § 1962 of the RICO Act are so broad, and so empowering, that Courts have spent decades literally ignoring the statutes’ text to narrow the relief available to plaintiffs. See, e.g., Fitzgerald v. Chrysler Corp., 116 F. 3d 225 (7th Cir. 1997)(admitting that a judicially-created exclusion to the meaning of "enterprise" under the RICO Act "doesn’t emerge from the statutory language," but applying it anyway).

The Third Circuit panel does an exceptional job summarizing this unwieldy body of extra-textual precedent on pages 32-42 of the opinion (for § 1 antitrust claims) and 153-172 (for RICO enterprises); any associates or clerks trying to figure out these complex fields could do worse than to review them.

These artificial restrictions force plaintiffs bringing antitrust and RICO claims — who typically only have circumstantial evidence at the beginning of their case given the efforts undertaken by the defendants to conceal their wrongdoing — to make suppositions about how the defendants carried out their scheme.

That’s where Twombly and Iqbal come in. 

In the Insurance Brokerage Antitrust cases, there were, shall we say, a lot of defendants*, defendants who, for purposes of antitrust and RICO allegations, could have been configured in a wide variety of ways. The plaintiffs thus, understandably, had to make some tactical decisions about their allegations, like with the type of antitrust violation alleged:

Although plaintiffs’ 16 First Amended Complaints (FAC) expressly pled a rule-of-reason claim in the alternative, see, e.g., Comm. FAC ¶ 530; EB FAC ¶ 454, their Second Amended Complaints omit any reference to the rule of reason, and their moving papers and appellate arguments make clear they are alleging exclusively per se violations. In their initial motions to dismiss, defendants contended that the First Amended Complaints had not adequately defined a market or pled anticompetitive effects and had thus failed to state a claim under the rule of reason. In response, plaintiffs did not assert that they had, in fact, met these requirements; they argued only that “where plaintiffs allege per se claims,” these requirements do not apply.

And with the type of RICO enterprise they alleged:

While plaintiffs strenuously insist they have adequately pled the existence of “broker-centered enterprises,” they have conspicuously refrained, throughout the district-court proceedings and on appeal, from asserting alternative bilateral or single-entity enterprises.

Presumably, the plaintiffs deliberately chose to avoid rule-of-reason claims (in which the plaintiff is required to demonstrate, e.g., the defendant’s market power in a defined market) and the allegation of "bilateral or single-entity enterprises" to preserve their class action status against all defendants. If, for example, the plaintiffs had split their claims up into multiple allegations of single-entity enterprises, each of those respective defendants tied to a particular scheme would move to decertify themselves from the bigger case. 

In the end, that’s what did the plaintiffs in; their "parallel conduct" allegations ran smack into Twombly**:

Contrary to plaintiffs’ arguments, one cannot plausibly infer a horizontal agreement among a broker’s insurer-partners from the mere fact that each insurer entered into a similar contingent commission agreement with the broker. As the District Court concluded, the first stage of the alleged brokercentered conspiracies—the consolidation of the groups of insurers to which each broker referred business—evinces nothing more than a series of vertical relationships between the broker and each of its “strategic partners.” 2007 WL 2533989, at *15.

Moreover, plaintiffs’ argument proves too much. If the parallel decisions by several insurers to pay contingent commissions imply a horizontal agreement, then it is difficult to see why parallel decisions to pay standard commissions (that is, a fixed percentage of each policyholder’s premium payment) would not also imply an agreement. For that matter, plaintiffs’ logic would divine a horizontal agreement from virtually any parallel expenditures for marketing services, on the mistaken ground that a firm would not pay for advertising, for example, in the absence of an agreement with its competitors to enter into similar contracts with the advertising company. Cf. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 566 (noting that “resisting competition is routine market conduct,” and that “if alleging parallel decisions to resist competition were enough to imply an antitrust conspiracy, pleading a § 1 violation against almost any group of competing businesses would be a sure thing”)

And the same problem hit the RICO claims:

In seeking to establish a “rim” enclosing the insurer-partners in the alleged RICO enterprises, plaintiffs rely on the same factual allegations we found deficient in the antitrust context: that each insurer entered into a similar contingent-commission agreement in order to become a “strategic partner”; that each insurer knew the identity of the broker’s other insurer-partners and the details of their contingent-commission agreements; that each insurer entered into an agreement with the broker not to disclose the details of its contingent-commission agreements; that the brokers utilized certain devices, such as affording “first” and “last looks,” to steer business to the designated insurer; and that, in the Employee Benefits Case, insurers adopted similar reporting strategies with regard to Form 5500. As noted, these allegations do not plausibly imply concerted action—as opposed to merely parallel conduct—by the insurers, and therefore cannot provide a “rim” enclosing the “spokes” of these alleged “hub-andspoke” enterprises. Even under the relatively undemanding standard of Boyle, these allegations do not adequately plead an associationin- fact enterprise. They fail the basic requirement that the components function as a unit, that they be “put together to form a whole.” Boyle, 129 S. Ct. at 2244 (internal quotation marks omitted). Because plaintiffs’ factual allegations do not plausibly imply anything more than parallel conduct by the insurers, they cannot support the inference that the insurers “associated together for a common purpose of engaging in a course of conduct.” Id. (quoting Turkette, 452 U.S. at 583); see id. at 2245 n.4 (stating that “several individuals” who “engaged in a pattern of crimes listed as RICO predicates” “independently and without coordination” “would not establish the existence of an enterprise”) …

In short, plaintiffs’ allegations didn’t "plausibly" suggest any actual agreement among all the insurers; instead, they merely suggested parallel conduct that, in the Third Circuit’s eyes, could just as equally be explained by way of the insurers acting independently.

Thus, the bulk of the claims were dismissed, although the plaintiffs can continue on some of their bid-rigging claims against the Marsh-connected defendants.

But there’s plenty for plaintiffs to be relieved about with the opinion.

First, there’s the massive size of the case. Although the Third Circuit couldn’t outright say it — just like the Supreme Court didn’t say it in deciding Twombly — the sheer size of the Insurance Brokerage Antitrust cases was undoubtedly a factor. The cases were an indictment of the entire commercial insurance industry, with a demand for treble damages (and attorney’s fees) for years of industry-wide conduct, damages that reached into the billions. If you bring a case of that magnitude, you invite heightened scruinty.

Moreover, and more importantly, the sheer number of defendants, and the extraordinary breadth of the allegations against them, is what stretched the plaintiffs claim from "probable" into "implausible." It is understandably difficult for a court to swallow allegations of a vast conspiracy across an entire industry when the plaintiffs only have concrete evidence against a single group of defendants (the Marsh defendants whose misdeeds launched the whole investigation). The real lesson is, if you’re going to file a nationwide suit of that scope, you need either to find yourself a whistleblower or to follow on the coattails of a government investigation (as the claims against the Marsh defendants did). Fair or not, nothing else will work these days.

Second, there’s the actual law in In Re: Insurance Brokerage Antitrust:

 “[A] plaintiff’s obligation to provide the ‘grounds’ of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief’ requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2)). Because Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) “requires a ‘showing,’ rather than a blanket assertion, of entitlement to relief,” courts evaluating the viability of a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) must look beyond conclusory statements and determine whether the complaint’s well-pled factual allegations, taken as true, are “enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 & n.3. The test, as authoritatively formulated by Twombly, is whether the complaint alleges “enough fact[] to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face,” id. at 570, which is to say, “‘enough fact to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of illegal[ity],’” Arista Records, LLC v. Doe 3, 604 F.3d 110, 120 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556) (alteration in Arista Records).Fn 17

FOONOTE 17:


Twombly affirms that Rule 8(a)(2) requires a statement of facts “suggestive enough” (when assumed to be true) “to render [the plaintiff’s claim to relief] plausible,” that is, “enough fact to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of illegal” conduct. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556. Iqbal, which reiterated and applied Twombly’s pleading standard, endorses this understanding. See Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949–51. Although Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203 (3d Cir. 2009), stated that Twombly and Iqbal had “repudiated” the Supreme Court’s earlier decision in Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506 (2002), see Fowler, 578 F.3d at 211, we are not so sure. Clearly, Twombly and Iqbal inform our understanding of Swierkiewicz, but the Supreme Court cited Swierkiewicz approvingly in Twombly, see 550 U.S. at 555–56, and expressly denied the plaintiffs’ charge that Swierkiewicz “runs counter” to Twombly’s plausibility standard, id. at 569–70. As the Second Circuit has observed, Twombly “emphasized that its holding was consistent with [the Court’s] ruling in Swierkiewicz that ‘a heightened pleading requirement,’ requiring the pleading of ‘specific facts beyond those necessary to state [a] claim and the grounds showing entitlement to relief,’ was ‘impermissibl[e].’” Arista Records, 604 F.3d at 120 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570 (alterations in Arista Records). In any event, Fowler’s reference to Swierkiewicz appears to be dicta, as Fowler found the complaint before it to be adequate. 578 F.3d at 212; see also id. at 211 (“The demise of Swierkiewicz, however, is not of significance here.”).

(Bolding mine). I previously covered the Second Circuit’s approach to antitrust post-Twombly; it’s good news for plaintiffs to see the same approach approved in the Third Circuit, particularly over a prior Third Circuit case (Fowler). Under Twombly and Iqbal, the issue isn’t whether or not the plaintiff has uncovered enough evidence to make a prima facie case on the face of their complaint — as some defense lawyers have claimed — but rather whether the plaintiff has alleged "enough fact to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of illegality."

The dismissal in In Re: Insurance Brokerage Antitrust might thus prove to have made the law better for plaintiffs in the Third Circuit. That the plaintiffs in the case itself lost many of their claims is of no moment; the case quite literally alleged an industry-wide agreement to commit antitrust and racketeering violations. Plaintiffs with cases of lower orders of magnitude — like those against anything less than dozens of companies at the top of two major industries, insurance and insurance brokering — will have little trouble distinguishing those facts.


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Tomorrow, July 15, 2010, I’m giving the plaintiff’s perspective in a webinar CLE titled: Pleadings Standards Post-Iqbal: Meeting Tougher Plausibility Standards in Commercial Litigation.

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If you’ve not yet had the pleasure of litigating the heck out of Iqbal v. Ashcroft, this CLE is a good opportunity to get some case cites and perspective.

If

Before Ashcroft v. Iqbal improperly re-wrote the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly foolishly imposed a new hurdle for plaintiffs who brought antitrust claims. Specifically, in Twombly the Supreme Court held,

In applying these general standards to a §1 claim [e.g., a price-fixing claim], we hold that stating such

Oh, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, will we ever stop blogging about you?

The newest online debate pits the class action defense lawyers at Drug & Device Law against University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Stephen Burbank at PENNumbra, the online supplement to UPenn’s Law Review.

Beck and Herrmann open with a defense of Iqbal