March 12, 2015 Top Story

Statutory Cite Not Required for Federal Civil Rights Complaint

Supreme Court says complaint without citation to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 can survive dismissal

Daniel Elms

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that factual allegations sufficient to support a claim trump the need to cite the specific statute supporting the plaintiff’s legal theory. In Johnson v. City of Shelby, the high court found that even without a statutory reference, if the complaint contains a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the plaintiff is entitled to relief, then dismissal is improper. Section leaders say the decision showcases evolving pleading standards in federal court by confirming that legal theories are not subject to factual pleading rules.

Employees’ Civil Rights Claims

The plaintiffs were police officers who sued the City of Shelby, Mississippi, for violating their Fourteenth Amendment due process rights and maliciously interfering with their employment by terminating them for exposing the criminal activities of a local alderman. The district court granted summary judgment for the city solely because the plaintiffs failed to cite to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in their complaint.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding that the citation to § 1983 was not a mere pleading formality, but instead provided a notice function to the city. The Court of Appeals stated that it had “consistently upheld such dismissals” because a “‘complaint is fatally defective in that it fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted’ when it does not invoke § 1983 for claims of constitutional violations under color of state law.”

The Supreme Court reversed. In a brief unanimous decision, the Court concluded that a complaint should not be dismissed solely for an “imperfect statement of the legal theory supporting the claim asserted,” and noted that there is no pleading rule that requires a plaintiff seeking redress for a violation of constitutional rights to expressly invoke § 1983 in order to state a claim.

Evolving Pleading Standards

Johnson may be the next chapter in the evolving pleading standards for federal courts since the Court’s seminal decisions in Bell Atlantic Co. v. Twomblyand Ashcroft v. Iqbal. In Twombly, an antitrust case, the Court held that “a plaintiff’s . . . allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that all of the complaint’s allegations are true.” In Iqbal, a federal civil rights case decided two years later, the Court described Twombly’s holding as a “flexible plausibility standard” that requires a plaintiff to “amplify a claim with factual allegations where necessary to render it plausible[.]”

Taken together, Iqbal and Twombly require a plaintiff to plead facts that, if proven true, suggest the plausibility of the claim asserted. In Johnson, the Court recognized the tension between its holding and its previous decisions heightening plaintiffs’ pleading obligations. The Court distinguished Twombly and Iqbal, however, emphasizing that those decisions focused on the factual allegations in the complaint and do not require a specific statutory reference to survive dismissal.

The Court found that the plaintiffs had satisfied Twombly and Iqbal by alleging “simply, concisely, and directly events that . . . entitled them to damages from the city.” This decision confirms that federal court “requirements for factual pleading do not apply to the pleading of legal theories,” says Doug McCoy, Mobile, AL, cochair of the ABA Section of Litigation’s Trial Practice Committee.

Timing Matters

The Court did not explain, however, why it would permit statutory claims to remain unidentified even at the summary judgment stage. “The Court opined that since the plaintiffs had ‘informed the city of the factual basis for their complaint, they were required to do no more to stave off thresholddismissal for want of an adequate statement of their claim,’” McCoy observes. However, because the district court granted summary judgment, “the dismissal of the Johnson lawsuit was not at the ‘threshold’ stage, in my view,” says McCoy.

The Court also ordered that the plaintiffs be given the opportunity to amend their complaint to specifically cite § 1983 as the basis for their claim. This could raise concern that a plaintiff may assert new legal claims and theories even very late in the litigation. “The confusing part of the Johnson decision, to me, is that it appears to impose no temporal limit on amending a complaint to assert a new and different legal theory. At some point, there should be an end to the opportunity to assert and pursue new legal theories,” McCoy.

Fair Notice to Defendants

Different statutes require proof of different elements and are subject to different defenses. Thus, a defendant will want specificity about what claims are being asserted against it. “At what point in the litigation must a plaintiff firmly identify its legal claims? If the complaint raises several legal theories but the plaintiff only invokes some of them, must the defendant identify and rebut the un-raised theories to obtain dismissal,” queries J. Dalton Courson, New Orleans, LA, cochair of the Section of Litigation’s Civil Rights Litigation Committee.

When facing ambiguity about the specific statute invoked, a defendants might look to other procedures. “The defendant could try to seek a more definite statement or clarify the claims through discovery,” suggests Courson. These may be a confused defendant’s best options if the Court refuses to permit dismissal solely because the relevant statute is not identified in the complaint.

Daniel Elms, Litigation News Contributing Editor

Keywords: complaint, pleading, plausibility, Iqbal, Twombly, Section 1983, summary judgment

Related Resources

  • Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 8(a)(2).
  • 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
  • Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007).
  • Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009).

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