May 18, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Ashcroft v. Iqbal

On May 18, the Supreme Court decided Ashcroft v. Iqbal, No. 07-1015. Many anticipated that the case would set the standards for qualified immunity for high-ranking governmental officials who were involved in the government's response to the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. But the case ended up refining the pleading standards in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007).

Javaid Iqbal is a Pakistani Muslim who was arrested and detained by federal officials shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He claims that he was deprived of various constitutional protections while in custody. He brought a Bivens action against various federal officials, including John Ashcroft, the former attorney general of the United States, and Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI. The defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground of qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed that decision on an interlocutory appeal.

The first question for the Court was appellate jurisdiction over what was plainly a non-final order of the trial court. The Court held that the trial court's denial of the defendants' motion to dismiss on qualified-immunity grounds fell within the "collateral order" doctrine even thought it dealt with procedural issues rather than the merits of the qualified-immunity defense.

As for the adequacy of Iqbal's pleading, the Court held that the plaintiff must plead that each defendant violated the Constitution through his own individual actions, and must plead enough facts to show that the defendants committed a violation of the law that is the basis for the plaintiff's claim—here, the requirements of a Bivens action. The Court held that Rule 8(a) "demands more than an unadorned, the-defendants-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." The Court reaffirmed Twombly's "plausibility" standard, and reiterated that it is not a "probability requirement," but it "asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." The Court also held that the presumption of correctness that courts give to factual allegations does not apply to legal conclusions.

The Court also expressly held that its decision in Twombly, because it interpreted Rule 8(a), applies to all civil cases, and not just antitrust actions like Twombly. This settles a division among courts that had debated whether Twombly applied outside of the antitrust arena.

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito joined. Justice Souter (the author of Twombly) filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer joined.

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