The Supreme Court must take some delight in reversing the Fifth Circuit. In a recent decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has once again reversed the Fifth Circuit. In Johnson v. City of Shelby, No. 13-1318 (5th Cir. 11/10/2014), the Supreme Court found that the Fifth Circuit applied the recent decisions in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), too rigorously. In Johnson, the Fifth Circuit had dismissed a civil rights claim for failure to plead the claim with adequate particularity. The Supreme Court found that the pleading was adequate regarding its legal theories of recovery. The Fifth Circuit, said the Supreme Court, had applied standards that were intended for factual pleadings to the legal statement of the cause of action.
Having informed the city of its factual basis, the plaintiff need do nothing more than “stave off threshold dismissal for want of adequate statement of their claim,” said the higher court. See the Supreme Court opinion here. See the pleading at issue here. Note that the Complaint does not even cite a particular statute regarding the theory of recovery. The Complaint refers to Title VII as basis for jurisdiction. But, the right of action could just as well include 42 U.S.C. §1983 or Title VII itself. Both statutes provide for protection from employment discrimination. The Complaint does discuss denial of procedural due process, suggesting the basis is intended to be §1983.
The higher court does explain that the federal rules do not countenance dismissal for imperfectly pleaded legal theories of the claim. The Supreme Court suggests the Fifth Circuit panel was “confused” by the Complaint. That is judge-speak for the Fifth Circuit panel mis-understood the Complaint. And, later in the brief opinion, the Supreme Court indicates the Fifth Circuit panel was too “punctilious” in dismissing this claim and should have allowed the plaintiff to amend his pleading. See Fifth Circuit opinion here.
The Supremes reached this result in a 9-0 per curium decision, indicating the Fifth Circuit’s opinion had little basis. It is strange that the appellate court did not allow amendment of the Complaint. The lower court granted summary judgment, apparently finding the claim should have been prosecuted under §1983. Instead, the plaintiffs had pressed their claim as a direct violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. After losing the summary judgment motion, the plaintiffs asked to amend their complaint to specifically plead §1983. In short, the plaintiff asked for a re-start. The district court said no. The Fifth Circuit agreed.
And, among the warnings that citing §1983 is not a mere formality, justice was lost. The courts essentially allowed the two individual plaintiffs to suffer because their lawyer overlooked a formalistic requirement.