Several months ago, the FJC put out a well-publicized study assessing the results of Twombly-Iqbal on motions practice. It concluded that there was little reason, overall, for concern that the Supreme Court’s new pleadings jurisprudence had worked a revolutionary change down below. Lonny Hoffman (Houston) has just released an important new paper which questions the methods and conclusions of the FJC’s work. He pulls no punches:
“This paper provides the first comprehensive assessment of the Federal Judicial Center’s long-anticipated study of motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim after Iqbal v. Ashcroft. Three primary assessments are made of the FJC’s study. First, there are reasons to be concerned that the study may be providing an incomplete picture of actual Rule 12(b)(6) activity. Even if the failure to capture all relevant motion activity was a non-biased error, the inclusiveness problem is consequential. Because the study was designed to compare over time the filing and grant rate of Rule 12(b)(6) motions, the size of the effect of the Court’s cases turns on the amount of activity found. Second, even if concerns are set aside that the collected data may be incomplete, it misreads of the FJC’s findings to conclude that the Court’s decisions are having no effect on dismissal practice. The FJC found that after Iqbal, a plaintiff is twice as likely to face a motion to dismiss. This sizeable increase in rate of Rule 12(b)(6) motion activity represents a marked departure from the steady filing rate observed over the last several decades and means, among other consequences, added costs for plaintiffs who have to defend more frequently against these motions. The data regarding orders resolving dismissal motions even more dramatically shows the consequential impacts of the Court’s cases. There were more orders granting dismissal with and without leave to amend, and for every case category examined. Moreover, the data show that after Iqbal it was much more likely that a motion to dismiss would be granted with leave to amend (as compared to being denied) both overall and in the three largest case categories examined (Civil Rights, Financial Instruments and Other). Employment Discrimination, Contract and Torts all show a trend of increasing grant rates. In sum, in every case type studied there was a higher likelihood after Iqbal that a motion to dismiss would be granted. Third, because of inherent limitations in doing empirical work of this nature, the cases may be having effects that the FJC researchers were unable to detect. Comparing how many motions were filed and granted pre-Twombly to post-Iqbal cannot tell us whether the Court’s cases are deterring some claims from being brought, whether they have increased dismissals of complaints on factual sufficiency grounds, or how many meritorious cases have been dismissed as a result of the Court’s stricter pleading filter. Ultimately, perhaps the most important lesson to take away from this last assessment of the FJC’s report is that empirical study cannot resolve all of the policy questions that Twombly and Iqbal raise.”
I should disclose that I provided Lonny comments on an earlier draft, and overall I think he’s done an incredible (and generally very fair) job. One thing to think about, as always when evaluating litigation data, is the degree to which we would expect to see any results at all given case selection effects. That Lonny does observe such substantively significant changes notwithstanding selection tells us something about how dramatic the Twiqbal decisions really were.