Shotgun Pleadings and Section 1983: The Eleventh Circuit Speaks Out
Many of us know that the Supreme Court’s decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 566 U.S. 662 (2009), was a game-changer in announcing a heightened pleading requirement of “plausibility” in federal courts.
[It was also a game-changer in connection with supervisory liability about which I’ve written and previously posted].
The Eleventh Circuit’s Weiland Shotgun Pleadings Decision
In Weiland v. Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, 792 F.3d 1313 (11th Cir. 2015), a case dealing with a plaintiff’s allegations of excessive force and malicious prosecution against a sheriff’s office and deputies, the Eleventh Circuit, provided a taxonomy of shotgun pleadings both pre- and post-Iqbal. In so doing, it delivered a warning to section 1983 attorneys of its highly negative view of such pleadings.
A Taxonomy of Shotgun Pleadings
The discussion began with the Eleventh Circuit’s statement that it had examined more than sixty of its published opinions (since 1985) dealing with shotgun pleadings.
Then, and for your reading pleasure, here is what the Eleventh Circuit said (my emphasis added):
Though the groupings cannot be too finely drawn, we have identified four rough types or categories of shotgun pleadings. The most common type—by a long shot—is a complaint containing multiple counts where each count adopts the allegations of all preceding counts, causing each successive count to carry all that came before and the last count to be a combination of the entire complaint. The next most common type … is a complaint that does not commit the mortal sin of re-alleging all preceding counts but is guilty of the venal sin of being replete with conclusory, vague, and immaterial facts not obviously connected to any particular cause of action. The third type of shotgun pleading is one that commits the sin of not separating into a different count each cause of action or claim for relief. Fourth, and finally, there is the relatively rare sin of asserting multiple claims against multiple defendants without specifying which defendant(s) are responsible for which acts or omissions, or which of the defendant(s) the claim is brought against. The unifying characteristic of all types of shotgun pleadings is that they fail to one degree or another, and in one way or another, to give the defendants adequate notice of the claims against them and the ground upon which each claim rests.
The Result in Weiland
Specifically, the plaintiff in Weiland alleged that the sheriff’s office maintained two unconstitutional policies: (1) a policy of not training its deputies in the appropriate use of force when seizing mentally ill persons for transportation to mental health facilities and (2) a policy of using internal affairs investigations to cover up the use of excessive force against the mentally ill.
Affirming the dismissal of both for failure to state a plausible claim, the Eleventh Circuit said that the first was impermissibly based on a single incident involving two deputies: there was no allegation that the need for specialized training for dealing with mentally ill persons was “so obvious” that the failure to provide it was deliberate indifference. As to the second, the complaint did not plausibly allege that the sheriff’s office had such a cover up policy: the plaintiff alleged facts dealing only with this particular internal affairs investigation.
When I consult for plaintiffs’ lawyers in section 1983 cases, I invariably breathe a sigh of relief when they inform me that they have not yet filed a lawsuit. It is often difficult to emerge unscathed from badly drafted complaints.
In contrast, when I consult for defendants’ lawyers in section 1983 cases and I see plaintiffs’ shotgun pleadings, I am pleased, despite the fact that such pleadings initially make it harder for the defense side. Why is that? Because shotgun pleadings make a very bad impression on, and make more work for, judges and their law clerks. In addition, they signal to everyone that the lawyers who drafted the pleadings may not be all that competent.
Follow me on Twitter @NahmodLaw