The Rise and Fall of Plausibility Pleading?
The Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly and its 2009 decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal unleashed a torrent of scholarly reaction. Commentators charged these decisions with adopting a new pleading regime, “plausibility pleading,” that upended the notice-pleading approach that had long prevailed in federal court. Whether a complaint could survive a motion to dismiss—it was argued—now depends on whether the court found the complaint plausible, allowing courts to second-guess a complaint’s allegations without any opportunity for discovery or consideration of actual evidence. Lower courts began to cite Twombly and Iqbal at a remarkably high rate, and empirical work revealed their effect on both dismissal rates and litigant behavior.
Although Twombly and Iqbal were troubling on many levels, the rise of a newly restrictive form of plausibility pleading was not inevitable. There was—and still is—a path forward that would retain the notice-pleading approach set forth in the text of the Federal Rules themselves and confirmed by pre-Twombly case law. This Article describes this reading of Twombly and Iqbal, and explains how more recent Supreme Court pleading decisions are consistent with this understanding. It is crucial, however, that these post-Iqbal decisions and the approach to pleading they reflect receive the same attention that accompanied Twombly, Iqbal, and the rise of plausibility pleading. Otherwise the narrative that Twombly and Iqbal compel a more restrictive pleading standard may become further entrenched, compounding the adverse effects of those problematic decisions.
Frank M. Johnson Faculty Scholar & Professor of Law, University of Alabama School of Law. Thanks to Carol Andrews, Jenny Carroll, Ed Cooper, Heather Elliott, Rich Freer, and Arthur Miller for their very helpful feedback and suggestions at various stages of this Article. Thanks also to Shalyn Smith for excellent research assistance, and to the editors and staff of the Vanderbilt Law Review for exemplary editorial work.