Keep Your Eye on the Iqbal

By Dave Frommell

On May 18, 2009, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, a case in which a pre-trial detainee filed a Bivens action against numerous federal officials.  The FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service detained Iqbal following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, isolating him from the general prison population by placing him in an administrative maximum security prison (ADMAX) in New York.  Iqbal’s claim alleged that the officials, including former attorney general John Ashcroft and former FBI director Robert Muller, subjected him to “harsh conditions of confinement” in ADMAX solely because of his race, religion, or national origin.

The Supreme Court dismissed Iqbal’s claims for being insufficiently pled pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2).  In so doing, the Court first reviewed—then went beyond—its holdings in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007).  Federal courts across the country have followed suit, updating their standards of review for summary judgment with a sprinkling of quotes from Iqbal.  Many scholars and practitioners believe that the new standards have made it more difficult for plaintiffs to survive summary judgment.

Pursuant to Rule 8, “pleadings must contain a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.”  Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949.  In Twombly, the Court stated that, while Rule 8 does not require a plaintiff to provide detailed factual allegations, a conclusory pleading that offers “naked assertions” without providing “further factual enhancement” will not suffice, either.  Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-57.  The complaint must allege sufficient facts to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Id. at 570.

Now, pursuant to Iqbal, complaints are facially plausible when their factual content “allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”  Iqbal, S. Ct. at 1949.  This standard “requires more than the sheer possibility that the defendant has acted unlawfully,” but the Court also made clear that the standard of Rule 8 “is not akin to a probability requirement” under which a court must find it more likely than not that the defendant acted unlawfully.  Id.  Thus, the line defining acceptable pleadings is case-specific, and requires the reviewing court to discern which facts are well-pled and which statements are merely conclusory.  After identifying the well-pled facts, the court should “assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement of relief.”  Id. at 1950. Importantly, “where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged—but it has not ‘show[n]’—‘that the pleader is entitled to relief.’” Id. (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2)).  The facts contained in the complaint must “nudge[] [the plaintiff’s] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.”  Twombly, 550 U.S. at 547.

Using this standard, the Court found many of Iqbal’s allegations to be conclusory recitations of the elements of a discrimination claim.  This included the assertions that John Ashcroft and Robert Muller adopted a policy of detaining and confining Arab Muslim men solely because of their race, religion, or national origin.  The Court explained that the compelling need to identify and detain persons with possible links to the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks was likely to disparately affect Arab Muslims because of the consistent identities of the perpetrators as Arab Muslims.  Thus, the Court rejected Iqbal’s alternative theory that he was detained and placed in ADMAX simply because of his race, religion, or national origin.

The Court went further, stating that the complaint even failed to show that the government used such factors in labeling suspected terrorists as persons “of high interest.”  Without sufficient facts to link the actions of the attorney general and the director of the FBI with Iqbal’s mistreatment while in confinement, the Court found Iqbal’s complaint insufficient.  Thus, while lower government actors may have violated Iqbal’s constitutional rights while he was confined, there was no evidence to show that the high-level government defendants ever adopted a policy of mistreatment on the basis of race, religion, or national origin.

The lessons of Twombly and Iqbal should give pause to attorneys and pro se parties contemplating tenuous filings in federal court.  Following Iqbal, some cases that may have proceeded through discovery will no longer meet the bar of summary judgment.