City of Shelby: New SCOTUS Pleadings Opinion in Visual Context

Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued a summary reversal of the Fifth Circuit in Johnson v. City of Shelby. The short per curiam opinion represents the latest chapter in the Court’s recently-controversial doctrine interpreting the requirements for federal pleadings under FRCP 8(a)(2). Working in collaboration with civ pro guru Prof. Scott Dodson of UC Hastings, I have charted out this doctrinal territory before. Today’s map is thus as updated look that places City of Shelby in its visual context.


Note that this map uses a custom schema where the Y-axis represents the relative liberality of a pleadings opinion. Upward-pointing triangles represent cases where the Court found a claim was stated under 8(a)(2); downward pointing triangles represent cases where no claim was stated. Green citation lines represent positive citations to prior caselaw; yellow citation lines represent limiting or negative citations. (For a detailed explanation of this schema, please see this video).

I have placed City of Shelby on the higher end of liberality spectrum because the opinion specifically invoked two liberal pleadings opinions in support of its result — Leatherman and Swierkiewicz (thus the green lines of citation). The opinion also made clear that its famously illiberal opinions Twombly and Iqbal were “not on point” because those cases concerned “substantive plausibility”, which was not at issue given the plaintiff had indeed “stated simply, concisely, and directly events that, they alleged, entitled them to damages from the city.” Plaintiff in this case had merely failed to invoke 42 USC 1983 in its civil rights complaint and the Court warned against a “further insistence on a punctiliously stated ‘theory of the pleadings.’” This limitation on the reach of Iqbal and Twombly is represented by yellow lines of citation.

At this juncture, City of Shelby seems to represent the next stage in what Prof. Dodson and I have described as a “genuine uptick in pleading liberality.” While Iqbal represented a low in liberality, the Court has since handed a series of victories to plaintiffs (Matrixx, Skinner, and now City of Shelby) that might assuage the fears of commentators worried about “the end of notice pleading.” Of course, it is also possible that this per curiam opinion will go largely unnoticed and uncited. This seems to be the fate that has befallen Erickson, a  prior per curiam pleadings opinion.

Only time will tell.

UPDATE: The SCOTUS Mapper Library now contains a version of this map with links to underlying opinions.


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