By Laura Temme, Esq. | Legally reviewed by Tim Kelly, J.D. | Last reviewed September 16, 2022
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Ashcroft v. Iqbal (2009) raised the bar for plaintiffs in civil actions, requiring them to present a "plausible" cause of action or risk having their case dismissed. Although the decision is relatively new compared to other influential constitutional cases, it has become a staple in civil procedure classes because it transformed pleading standards in civil cases.
The Supreme Court's decision in Iqbal is often discussed in conjunction with an antitrust case, Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly (2007). These two opinions made it much easier for courts to dismiss a person's complaint for failure to state a claim. The Iqbal decision is also notable because the Court concluded that qualified immunity shielded high-ranking government officials from liability for the actions of their subordinates.
Javaid Iqbal, a Pakistani man working as a cable television installer in New York, was on his way to an appointment in downtown Manhattan to renew his work authorization card when two planes struck the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Two months later, Iqbal was arrested for using another man's Social Security card. When authorities searched his apartment, they found a card related to his September 11 appointment. Based on this and very little additional evidence, the FBI designated him a person of "high interest" in its investigation into the 9/11 attacks.
Iqbal was held at a special detention center in Brooklyn for six months while he awaited trial on fraud charges. During that time, he alleged that prison guards tortured and beat him, subjected him to cavity searches, and violated several of his constitutional rights.
Iqbal filed suit against 34 federal officials and nine corrections officers, alleging that they carried out discriminatory policies that labeled him a person of interest based on his race, religion, and national origin. His lawsuit relied on the Supreme Court's decision in Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents (1971), which held that an individual could file a civil claim for monetary damages when their constitutional rights are violated by federal officials.
Robert Mueller, who was then Director of the FBI, and former Attorney General John Ashcroft were included as defendants in Iqbal's complaint. Mueller and Ashcroft moved to dismiss the claims against them, arguing that including them based on the "conclusory allegation" that they knew of or condoned the unconstitutional actions of their subordinates did not meet the threshold of a Bivens claim. However, as Justice Souter pointed out in his dissent, they did admit that they could be liable if they knew their subordinates were deliberately discriminating against Iqbal and others.
The federal district court sided with Iqbal, denying the motion for summary judgment and allowing his lawsuit to move forward. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
On a writ of certiorari, the Supreme Court was asked to answer two questions:
Notably, the Supreme Court did not answer the first question. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion for the majority, which held 5-4 that Iqbal's complaint failed to show that Ashcroft and Mueller implemented their investigative policies after 9/11 for discriminatory reasons.
Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which lays out the general rules for legal pleadings, requires a plaintiff to include a "short and plain statement of the claim showing the pleader is entitled to relief." Essentially, when you file a lawsuit, you have to explain why the courts are the proper venue to sort out your dispute.
Justice Kennedy's opinion builds on this rule and its decision in Twombly two years earlier. In Twombly, the Court held that although "detailed factual allegations" are not required, Rule 8 does call for a legal complaint to have sufficient facts that, assuming they are true, "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face."
However, Justice Kennedy writes that in some cases, courts are not required to accept a complaint's allegations as true. "Threadbare recitals of a cause of action's elements, supported by mere conclusory statements," he writes, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. The majority concluded that given the 9/11 attacks were carried out by Arab Muslim men, the fact that the FBI detained thousands of Arab Muslim men during its investigation does not "plausibly suggest that petitioners purposefully discriminated on prohibited grounds." Rather, Iqbal's factual allegations were legal conclusions masquerading as facts, in the majority's view.
"The plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement," the majority held, "but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully."
The majority also rejected Iqbal's argument that Ashcroft and Mueller could be held liable under the theory of "supervisory liability." The Court held that in a Bivens action, as well as Section 1983 actions, government officials are only liable for their own misconduct regardless of their title.
Justice Souter dissented, joined by Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer. He points out Ashcroft and Mueller's concession that a high-ranking government official could be subject to liability under Bivens based on the doctrine of respondeat superior.
The dissent argued that the majority's opinion focused on issues that were not briefed by the parties. Ashcroft and Mueller did not ask whether they could be liable under Bivens if they knew of or condoned the allegedly unconstitutional acts of their subordinates. They actually conceded that they would be liable if they had "actual knowledge" and showed "deliberate indifference." Instead, they argued that Iqbal's complaint was insufficient under Rule 8 and could not overcome their affirmative defense of qualified immunity.
"[W]e received no briefing or argument on the proper scope of supervisory liability, much less the full-dress argument we normally require," Justice Souter wrote. "The attendant risk of error is palpable."
Further, he argued that if supervisory liability for Bivens actions were the question presented to the court, the majority had more options than simply doing away with the doctrine altogether.
"In fact, there is quite a spectrum of possible tests for supervisory liability," Justice Souter writes. "[I]t could be imposed where a supervisor has actual knowledge...or where supervisors 'know about the conduct and facilitate it'...or where the supervisor has no knowledge of the violation but was reckless in his supervision."
Justice Breyer wrote a separate dissent to point out that while the majority's concern over unwarranted litigation is valid, there are other tools federal courts can use to diminish the risk of imposing too high a burden on public officials. Lower courts can structure discovery to address misconduct by lower-level defendants first, for example.
Legal scholars have pointed out that the majority's opinion glosses over the experiences of Iqbal and other post-9/11 detainees. There are certainly arguments to be made that the FBI's investigative tactics did not have such "obvious" legitimate bases. Law students studying the case should keep in mind that Supreme Court justices are not infallible. However, they do dictate the rule of law.
Iqbal (along with Twombly) remains the standard for pleadings in civil cases. You can view the Supreme Court's full opinion on FindLaw's Cases & Codes.