No Justice for Plaintiffs in Little Noticed Supreme Court Decision

A Supreme Court decision issued in May is proving to have dangerous implications for plaintiffs in <"">civil lawsuits. According to a New York Times article, the decision in Ashcroft vs. Iqbal has made it far easier – in fact, too easy – for federal judges to dismiss civil lawsuits long before plaintiffs even have a chance to be heard.

In Ashcroft vs. Iqbal, a Muslim plaintiff had claimed that he suffered abuse while imprisoned on immigration charges in New York after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In a 5 to 4 decision, the high court overturned a ruling that the plaintiff, who was imprisoned more than a year after the attacks, could proceed with his lawsuit against former Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller.

According to The New York Times, what was little-noticed about Ashcroft vs Iqbal is that it establishes a difficult new standard plaintiffs filing civil lawsuits must meet before they can even get past the courthouse door. In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that: “Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.”

According to The New York Times, Justice Kennedy’s words mean a civil lawsuit must now “satisfy a skeptical judicial gatekeeper.” Prior to this ruling, plaintiffs only had to file a basic complaint. To dismiss a suit – established in a 1957 Supreme Court decision – a federal judge had to determine “beyond doubt” that a plaintiff had no case.

The old standards served plaintiffs well, because in most cases, the facts surrounding an act of wrongdoing – whether it involves employment discrimination, defective products or fraud – are closely guarded by defendants. Even with a bare-bones complaint, plaintiffs were entitled to examine a defendant’s records, and question key individuals. Through this discovery process, the outrageous, deliberate and unlawful conduct of many a defendant saw the light of day.

But under Iqbal, that process has been undermined. According to The New York Times, the decision instructs lower court judges to dismiss lawsuits that “strike them as implausible.” That’s a pretty loose – and dangerous – standard for judges to follow. Stephen B. Burbank of the University of Pennsylvania Law School told the Times that the Iqbal decision is “a blank check for federal judges to get rid of cases they disfavor.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dissented from the majority opinion, has characterized Iqbal as important and dangerous, The New York Times said. Speaking to a group of federal judges last month, Justice Ginsburg said Iqbal “messed up the federal rules” governing civil litigation.

Already, Iqbal is having a huge impact on lawsuits in this country. According to The New York Times, lower courts have cited it 500 times since the decision was published in May by the Supreme Court. Lawsuit involving everything from employment discrimination to securities fraud have been dismissed before they even got off the ground. Sadly, under Iqbal, it seems clear that many plaintiffs with legitimate grievances will never have their day in court.

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