The Supreme Court’s decision in the Iqbal case earlier this year has generated a great deal of controversy and comment and even a proposal to overturn the decision legislatively. Iqbal does seem to be having an impact on a number of cases. An interesting question, however, is whether the Iqbal case will have an impact on federal securities cases, given that the securities laws already have their own separate heightened pleading standards. But a recent Eighth Circuit decision, applying Iqbal to affirm a lower court dismissal, suggests that Iqbal could indeed have an impact in damages actions under the federal securities laws.
First, some background. Fed. R .Civ. P. 8(a)(2) requires that a "claim for relief" must contain a "short plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Historically, courts had come to use the shorthand phrase "notice pleading" to describe the requirements under this rule.
In the Supreme Court’s 2008 Twombley case (here), the Court said that in order to satisfy these pleading requirements, the complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face."
In the 2009 Iqbal case, the claimant in a Bivens action had sought to argue that Twombley’s "facial plausibility" test should be limited to the pleadings made in the context of an antitrust dispute, as had been involved in Twombley. The Supreme Court held that the argument that Twombley was limited to antitrust actions "is not supported by Twombley and is incompatible with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure." Twombley, the Iqbal court said, "expounded the pleading standard for all civil actions."
The Iqbal decision that the "facial plausibility" pleading sufficiency test applies to all federal civil actions has been the subject of a great deal of heated discussion. It has been criticized in many quarters. For example, in a September 3, 2009 article entitled "Plausibility Pleading Revisited and Revised: A Comment on Ashcroft v. Iqbal" (here), Boston University Law School Professor Robert G. Bone argues that Iqbal "takes Twombley’s plausibility standard in a new and ultimately ill-advised direction." Seton Hall Law Professor Edward Hartnett, less critical of the decision, argues in his recent paper (here) that Twobley and Iqbal can and should be "tamed."
Twombley and Iqbal have thir supporters. Fellow bloggers Mark Herrmann and James Beck argue on their Drug and Device Law Blog (here) that:
There’s nothing radical about requiring a plaintiff to have sufficient facts to plead a prima facie case before the courts will entertain the lawsuit – and that goes for all forms of litigation. It’s simply a construction of the language of Rule 8 "short and plan statement" that emphasizes "statement" a little more and "short" a little less. It’s about time, we think, that courts adopt a construction of the Rules that favors reduced, rather than expanded, litigation.
Whether Twombley and Iqbal are generally viewed as good or bad developments largely seems to depend on where your starting point is. But regardless of whether they are good or bad, the cases are having an impact in the lower courts, as Beck and Herrmann underscored in their more recent Drug and Device Law Blog post (here) detailing developments, by way of illustration, in recent medical device cases applying Twombley and Iqbal.
These practical impacts have registered with the plaintiffs’ bar, and indeed a September 21, 2009 Law.com article (here) discussed how civil rights and consumer groups and trial lawyers have been meeting to discuss ways to undo Iqbal. According to the article, Iqbal has already had a very significant impact – it has "already produced 1,500 district court and 100 appellate court decisions."
These groups have already managed to get proposed legislation introduced in Congress seeking to have Iqbal overturned. On July 22, 2009, Senator Arlen Specter introduced Senate Bill 1504, "Notice Pleading Restoration Act of 2009," which basically provides that courts shall not dismiss a complaint except under the notice pleading standards applicable under Supreme Court precedent prior to Twombley.
Whether this legislative effort will go anywhere remains to be seen. Congress has rather a full plate these days, and a bid to adjust a narrow feature of civil pleading standards may not make the cut. On a related note, according to a Point of Law blog post (here), there will be a House hearing on October 27, 2009 on the topic of "Access to Justice Denied – Ashcroft v. Iqbal."
Impact on Securities Cases?
Whatever the impact of Iqbal may be in other contexts, it has seemed an uncertain question whether Iqbal will prove to have a substantial impact in damages actions under the federal securities laws, due to the fact that the securities laws already have their own particularized pleading standards. Indeed, under the PSLRA, there are very specific requirements regarding what must be pleaded with respect to misleading statements or omissions and with respect to the required state of mind. The Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in the Tellabs case even further underscored the degree of specificity required to satisfy the state of mind pleading requirements.
Given these very specific statutory requirements applicable to the federal securities laws, it could be argued that the more generalized pleading requirements expounded in Twombley and Iqbal might have relatively less impact in the context of a damages action under the federal securities laws. However, a recent decision from the Eighth Circuit suggests that Iqbal could have an impact in securities cases after all.
In an October 20, 2009 decision in McAdams v. McCord (here), the Eighth Circuit was reviewing an appeal of a district court’s dismissal of the securities class action lawsuit that have been filed against Moore Stephens Frost (MSF), the outside auditors of UCAP. The district court had held that the complaint "failed to plead with particularity the circumstances of MSF’s alleged fraud, as well as facts giving rise to a strong inference of scienter."
The Eighth Circuit held that it "need not decide whether the complaint adequately states with particularity facts giving rise to a strong inference that MSF acted with scienter," because, the court held applying Iqbal to the loss causation pleading requirement under the Dura Pharmaceuticals case, that "the complaint fails to sufficiently plead loss causation."
The court referenced what it called the complaint’s "threadbare, conclusory allegation" that as a "direct and proximate cause" of defendants’ fraud the plaintiffs had lost their investments. The court noted that this allegation failed to "specify" how MSF’s alleged statements "as compared to the complaint’s long list of alleged misrepresentations and omissions by the executives, proximately caused the investors’ losses." The court noted further that the complaint "does not state the value of UCAP’s stock when the investors made their investments, or its value right before, or right after, the need for restatement was announced."
The Court concluded that without these allegations "the complaint does not show that the investors’ losses were caused by MSF’s misstatements," which "defeats the plausibility of the investors’ claims that MSF’s audit opinions …caused their losses."
The Eighth Circuit’s decision in the McAdams case, in which the Eighth Circuit held, applying Iqbal, that the claimants’ loss causation allegations lacked "plausibility," shows that Iqbal could indeed have an impact on securities cases.
It is particularly interesting that the Eighth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal on the grounds of insufficient loss causation plausibility, while observing that it did not even need to reach the question whether the plaintiffs had plead scienter with sufficient particularity under the PSLRA. The conclusion suggests that Iqbal’s generalized pleading requirements must be considered analytically prior to the PSLRA’s more particularized requirements. And whether or not the Iqbal standard is to be viewed as prior, its "facial plausibility test" apparently applies to the elements required to state a cause of action under the federal securities laws, even those elements for which the PSLRA does not itself specify particularized pleading requirements.
In any event, the basic holding of the McAdams case that the complaint’s loss causation allegations must meet the Iqbal "facial plausibility" standard in order survive an initial motion to dismiss could be a valuable tool for defendants’ to use at the initial pleading stage. (Of course, many plaintiffs will include allegations in the complaint of the kind that the plaintiffs in the McAdams case had omitted, so the extent to which the McAdams decision will affect other cases could be limited – with the inclusion of seemingly minimal additional information about their alleged investment loss, plaintiffs could likely defeat a motion raising similar arguments.)
One question that may be of more interest to civil procedure buffs is whether it matters that in McAdams the court was considering a complaint to which (as the McAdams court itself noted) Rule 9(b) applied, rather than (or perhaps, in addition to) Rule 8. Rule 9(b) requires that fraud must be plead with "particularity." To my mind, it does not and should not matter whether the applicable pleading standard is under Rule 9 rather than under Rule 8, either way it would seem (as the McAdams court noted) that the Iqbal "facial plausibility" test should apply, although I would be interested to know if readers disagree.
One final thought about Iqbal itself. I tend to agree with the school of thought in favor the decision. I recognize the argument that the "facial plausibility" test does not appear in the Fed. R. Civ. P., but then neither does the phrase "notice pleading." And I find myself puzzled by the critics of Iqbal – are they suggesting that complaints that are not facially plausible should be allowed to go forward? In any event, under Rule 15 (a)(2), courts are admonished to allow pleading amendments "freely when justice so requires," so plaintiffs will typically have at least a second crack at trying to present a "facially plausible" complaint.
In any event, based on the McAdams decision at least, Iqbal appears to represent yet another factor raising the hurdle that plaintiffs’ initial pleads must overcome in order to survive a motion to dismiss in a securities class action lawsuit. Clearly, the accumulating number of substantive and procedural developments increasingly favors the defendants in these cases.
Very special thanks to Tom Gorman of the SEC Actions Blog for his recent post (here) discussing the McAdams case.
More About Loss Causation: An October 21, 2009 memo entitled "Loss Causation Challenges in Securities Cases" (here) by Michael Smith and William Hutchinson of the King & Spaulding law firm surveys recent case law regarding loss causation issues under the federal securities laws.