Johnson v. City of Shelby, Mississippi: Supreme Court’s Clarification of Pleading Standards

Posted on May 6th, 2015 by sutteroconnell

Pleading standards have been a hot topic for the legal profession since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down decisions in Twombly and Iqbal.  In both matters, the high court mandated plaintiffs must plead factual allegations sufficient to make the claim “plausible” on its face.  As a result, plaintiffs have been forced to ensure that their factual allegations are specific enough to survive an initial motion to dismiss.  In Johnson v. City of Shelby, Mississippi, the Supreme Court recently made clear that neither Twombly or Iqbal, nor the federal pleading rules, require plaintiffs to set forth the legal theory supporting the asserted claim for relief.

In Johnson, Shelby police officers Tracey L. Johnson and David James (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) were fired by the city’s board of aldermen in September 2009 for violations of police procedure and residents’ rights.   Plaintiffs claimed they were actually fired for investigating criminal activity of one of the aldermen. Plaintiffs sued the city for violations of their Fourteenth Amendment Due Process rights.

The City of Shelby moved for summary judgment on the basis that Plaintiffs failed to expressly invoke 42 U. S. C. §1983 in their complaint.   42 U. S. C. §1983 is the federal statute pertaining to civil lawsuits for deprivation of one’s constitutional rights.  The District Court granted the city’s motion and subsequently denied Plaintiffs motion to amend their complaint.  The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, prompting the Supreme Court to address the issue.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court distinguished the decisions of Twombly and Iqbal by noting that the specificity requirement pertains to the factual allegations supporting the claims, not the specific legal theory.  The Court stated, “[f]ederal pleading rules call for ‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.’”  They “do not countenance dismissal of a complaint for imperfect statement of the legal theory supporting the claim asserted.”  The Plaintiffs sufficiently pled their factual allegations, thus the fact they did not expressly invoke 42 U. S. C. §1983 is not good reason for dismissal.

It appears from Johnson that the Supreme Court is not taking as narrow an approach to pleading as was originally thought following Twombly and Iqbal.  Hopefully, Johnson does not mark the beginning of the Court rethinking its “plausibility” test.

If you would like more information on the above or need counsel to defend a federal civil rights lawsuit you can reach attorney Adam Martin at 216-928-4536.