The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure: Rule 12(e) permits a party to move for a more definite statement when a pleading to which a responsive pleading is permitted is so vague or ambiguous that a party cannot reasonably be required to frame a responsive pleading. The motion must be made before filing a responsive pleading. When filing the motion it must distinguish between the defects complained of and the details desired. If the court orders a more definite statement and the order is not obeyed within 14 days after notice of the order or within the time the court sets, the court may strike the pleading or issue another appropriate order to achieve the desired result.
There are many reported decisions at all judicial levels touching upon the uses and abuses of Rule 12(e). Most of these cases fall under civil rights and employment discrimination. One of the most important things an attorney needs to know about The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(e) motion is when to use it and when not.
Generally, a relief under The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(e) can be held as appropriate under the following circumstances:
When it is virtually impossible to know which allegations of fact are intended to support which claims for relief, a relief under Rule 12(e) is appropriate. The failure to identify claims with sufficient clarity that would enable the defendant to frame a responsive pleading constitutes a shotgun pleading. The law disfavors “shotgun” pleadings because such pleadings present an unfair burden on a defendant. Therefore, the plaintiff should be required to provide a more definite statement of his/her complaint. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(e) allows for when a defendant faced with a “shotgun complaint” is not expected to frame a responsive pleading. Rather, the defendant is expected to move the court to require the plaintiff to file a more definite statement. Where the plaintiff asserts multiple claims for relief, a more definite statement, if properly drawn, will present each claim for relief in a separate count, as required by Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 10(b), and with such clarity and precision that the defendant will be able to discern what the plaintiff is claiming and to frame a responsive pleading. Moreover, with the shotgun pleading out of the way, the trial judge will be relieved of the cumbersome task of sifting through a myriad of claims, many of which may be foreclosed by various defenses.
When legal claims do not correspond clearly to the individual defendants in a complaint the court allows for a motion for a definite statement. In McHenry v. Renne, 84 F.3d 1172 (9th Cir. Cal. 1996), the Ninth circuit court when confronted with a unfocused and vague complaint affirmed the district court’s decision granting the City of San Francisco’s motion for a more definite statement under Rule 12(e). This was a civil rights case where in it was impossible to tell from the complaint “which defendants were allegedly liable for which wrongs.” The court concluded, “Something labeled a complaint but written more as a press release, prolix in evidentiary detail, yet without simplicity, conciseness and clarity as to whom plaintiffs are suing for what wrongs, fails to perform the essential functions of a complaint.” In a case such as above, Rule 12(e) relief is warranted.
The courts tend to limit Rule 12(e) Motion for Definite Statement relief to complaints that exhibit ambiguity rather than requests for complaints that are wanted to be of more detail. Therefore, defendants attempting to use Rule 12(e) as a mechanism to elicit a more detailed, as opposed to a more coherent, pleading usually fail. Also, the courts generally have rejected motions under Rule 12(e) in cases where defendants try to use the rule as a means to raise pleading standards above the notice pleading requirements of Rule 8(a) or force plaintiffs to “make their cases” before discovery.