Motions to dismiss can be big winners or big losers. Filing a motion to dismiss in virtually every case is a bad habit, but probably not as bad as the habit of never making one. Generally, a motion to dismiss tests the legal sufficiency of the claims asserted in the complaint. Failure to state a claim is often raised as a sort of a defense to a plaintiff’s complaint. A defendant may move to dismiss a cause of action if the plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
The Pleading Standards
In May 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court altered the way federal courts approach motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) with its decision in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly. The court considered in detail what a complaint must contain to survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). In the process, Twombly construed the standard set more than 50 years earlier in Conley v. Gibson that, “a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief”. Twombly adopted a more movant-friendly standard, requiring a complaint to allege facts that, if proven, would support the relief requested and to show that the alleged facts were “enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true”.
Though Twombly marked a clear departure from prior liberal federal pleading standards, the legal standard governing Rule 12(b)(6) motions has frankly been in flux since then. It was uncertain whether the Twombly standard only applied to antitrust cases or to all motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim and whether Twombly set forth a new pleading standard.
This uncertainty created by Twombly was put to rest by the May 2009 Supreme Court decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal. This decision provides a great deal of guidance in resolving these issues raised by Twombly. Iqbal held that Twombly was not limited to antitrust disputes. Such a narrow reading, the Court reasoned, would go against the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Twombly turned on the construction of Fed R Civ. P. 8, and not the underlying substantive law. Accordingly, Iqbal made plain that the Twombly analysis applies “in all civil actions and proceedings in the United States district courts.” In doing so, Iqbal makes it clear that Twombly applies to all cases governed by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. A claim is plausible on its face if the complaint contains sufficient facts for a court to draw an inference that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct.
To sum up, to win a motion to dismiss, the defendant must now show that the plaintiff did not plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible” on its face. Though there are still differences of opinion about construing Iqbal, as such, Iqbal brings clarity for addressing both pleading standards and the standards for a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim in all civil cases in federal court.