In law school, we learn that the federal system is a notice pleading jurisdiction. The idea behind notice pleading is that you make a general statement as to what the case is about if you are a plaintiff and then the rest is up to discovery. Once discovery is done you can go with the motion for summary judgment if you are on the defense side. At the state level, the approach varies from state to state. Some states are much more fact-based while other states are very general and leave it up to discovery. Some states, such as Illinois, fall in between. One of the things that I am seeing quite a bit, particularly with prisoners, but sometimes with individual plaintiffs as well, is that they are filing pro se complaints. That means, they are filing complaints without a lawyer. That is generally not to be recommended. Also, even lawyers have to worry about how to get to first base so to speak. Thus, this blog entry will explore what must be alleged to survive a motion to dismiss. Of course, my blog is devoted to the ADA, but the reader may find this information helpful with respect to federal cases in general.
To say that the federal system is a notice pleading situation, is no longer entirely accurate thanks to two different cases, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009), and Bell Atlantic Corporation v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). In those cases, the United States Supreme Court said that a simple recital of the elements of a cause of action supported by making conclusory statements is not going to be sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss. Iqbal 129 S. Ct. at 1949-1950. That is, while legal conclusions can provide the framework of the complaint, they have to be supported by factual allegations that plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief. Id. at 1950. Plausibility refers to a complainant pleading enough factual content that allows the court to draw a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct. Id. at 1949.
So what does this all mean? It means that one should not take the notice pleading analysis of the federal court literally. That is, a better approach might be to adopt a hybrid system, such as the one in Illinois. Illinois uses a hybrid system. That is, it is not a notice pleading jurisdiction, but on the other hand it is not a pure factual jurisdiction in its practice either. Rather, a complainant has to give enough facts to put the defendant on notice as to what the claim is. The language you might see in an Illinois case is that a plaintiff is required to allege facts stating the elements of the cause of action, and unsupported legal conclusions and factual conclusions are insufficient and will be disregarded. People ex rel. Madigan v. Tang 346 Ill. App. 3d 277, 283 (first district 2004). There isn’t much difference between a standard such as this and the standard called for by Iqbal, which requires that a plaintiff’s complaint has to include sufficient facts of each element to support a reasonable inference that he or she is entitled to relief. See Wells v. West Georgia technical College 2012 WL 3150819, *3 (N.D. Georgia August 2, 2012).
What it all comes down to is this, and the Wells case is an excellent road map for how it works, is that you want to take each element of the claim and then come up with specific facts supporting each element of the claim. For example, for a person to have an actual disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you would need a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Therefore, you would want to allege facts showing a physical or mental impairment. You would also want to allege facts showing that a substantial limitation on a major life activity (recognizing that substantial limitation post ADAAA is not the same as substantial limitation prior to the ADAAA), exists. If it is a case involving reasonable accommodations, you’re also going to have to allege facts to show that the person is a qualified person with a disability. That is, you would need to allege facts to show that the person can do the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodations. In short, the methodology is pretty simple. As a plaintiff, what you need to do, is determine what are the elements of the cause of action and then allege the facts satisfying each element. Stay away from general conclusions and stick to specific facts. On the defense side, when you receive the complaint, figure out what are the elements of each of the causes of action that the plaintiff is alleging. If the plaintiff is not alleging specific facts that satisfy each element, then your chances for prevailing on a motion to dismiss increase quite substantially.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this blog entry, as are all my blog entries, general information and are not for purposes of giving specific legal advice. For specific legal advice and for how a complaint should actually be structured, that is for the lawyer to decide.