Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal that clarified and, indeed, amplified the pleading requirements in federal lawsuits. Essentially, the decision held that a complaint is insufficient to state a claim if it merely states legal conclusions and does not include specific factual allegations supporting the claim.
Although not an employment case, Iqbal did involve claims of intentional discrimination. Accordingly, employers facing discrimination claims in federal court have been filing motions to dismiss complaints that do not meet the standard articulated in Iqbal. Many federal courts have been granting such motions and dismissing claims that likely would have survived prior to Iqbal.
Opponents of the Iqbal decision have not gone away quietly. In July, Senator Arlen Spector (D-Pa) introduced the Notice Pleading Restoration Act (S. 1504). More recently, on November 19, 2009, Representative Gerald Nadler (D-NY) introduced the Open Access to Courts Act of 2009 (H.R. 4115). Both bills seek to reverse the Iqbal decision and reinstate a pleading standard articulated in a Supreme Court decision from 1957 (Conley v. Gibson). Under that standard, a complaint was not subject to dismissal “unless it appear[ed] beyond doubt that the plaintiff [could] prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.” The Supreme Court expressly overruled that standard in Iqbal.
The Iqbal decision rightly recognizes that lawsuits in which the plaintiff cannot even articulate specific facts to support a claim should be dismissed. The new legislation, however, would prop up weak claims and ultimately make it more expensive for employers to fight off meritless lawsuits. According to Representative Nadler’s press release, the Open Access bill is supported by “a diverse coalition that includes the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Christian Trial Lawyer’s Association, Sierra Club, and National Senior Citizens Law Center.”
Although Congress certainly has other, more pressing issues on its current docket (e.g., health care, the economy, and environmental issues), we anticipate that proponents of these bills will push for prompt passage.