U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Federal Pleading Standards

On May 21, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a significant ruling elaborating on federal pleading requirements in Bell Atlantic Corporation v. Twombly. In a 7-2 decision, the Court held that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires that a complaint contain more than "a formulaic recitation of a cause of action's elements" to survive a motion to dismiss. There must be sufficient factual allegations to raise the right to relief "above the speculative level." In dissent, Justice Stevens argued that dismissing the case "without even looking at any of that evidence marks a fundamental—and unjustified—change in the character of pretrial practice." Though Twombly technically involved the pleading requirements for a claim under Section 1 of the Sherman Act, the ruling extends to all federal court complaints and likely to state court complaints in the 26 states that have adopted the federal pleading standard.

While some commentators have anticipated that the Twombly ruling will make it easier for a defendant to prevail on a motion to dismiss based on the pleadings, the Supreme Court cast some doubt on that supposition just two weeks later in its per curiam opinion in Erickson v. Pardus. In Erickson, the Court reversed a 10th Circuit decision that dismissed a complaint for being "conclusory." Erickson involved a prisoner's pro se complaint, which is held to a lower pleading standard than a complaint filed by a lawyer, but nonetheless suggests that there is still significant room for disagreement regarding whether Twombly signals the abandonment of the notice pleading standard in federal courts.