Complex Litigation Update: Eleventh Circuit Targets “Shotgun Pleadings,” Clarifies Definition

Jul 28, 2015   

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Each court may have its own definition of what constitutes a “shotgun pleading,” but the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit attempted to clarify that term in Christopher J. Weiland v. Palm Beach Co. Sheriff’s Office et al., available here. In doing so, the Court reversed the District Court’s decision, holding that two counts alleged in the pleading were not shotgun pleadings, but instead were informative enough to permit a court to readily determine if they stated a claim upon which relief can be granted. After all, the Court wrote, dismissal under Rule 8(a)(2) and Rule 10(b) is only appropriate when it is “virtually impossible to know which allegations of fact are intended to support which claims for relief,” and this case presented no such impossibility.

Background

Christopher Weiland’s original complaint told a story about two Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office deputies shooting, tasering, and beating him in his bedroom without warning or provocation. Weiland’s father had called the police and told the 911 dispatcher that his son, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was “acting up,” “on drugs,” and “probably had a gun.” Deputies Christopher Fleming and Michael Johnson were dispatched to the residence. What happened after is disputed by the deputies, but Weiland claims that while sitting on a bed motionless with a shotgun idle in his lap, Johnson fired two rounds at Weiland, knocking him off the bed. Weiland claims Fleming then tasered him when he was immobile and critically injured.

Weiland was charged with two counts of aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer and incarcerated for two years awaiting trial. When trial came around, the officers’ stories fell apart, and Weiland was acquitted.

Weiland filed a lawsuit in state court in January 12, 2011, but then added multiple claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on December 17, 2012 and removed to federal court. In May 2013, the District Court dismissed without prejudice all of Weiland’s § 1983 claims. It concluded that four counts asserting those claims violated Rule 8(a)(2) and Rule 10(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. However, even though it dismissed Weiland’s claims, the District Court observed that “viewing the alleged facts in the light most favorable to Weiland … Defendants violated Weiland’s fourth amendment constitutional rights when they shot him.” The District Court gave Weiland time to amend his complaint, and he submitted a third amended complaint, which was the subject of the Eleventh Circuit’s review.

In the third amended complaint, the four counts at issue were presented as follows:

  • Count One claims that Fleming, Johnson, and the deputies, acting under color of state law, violated Weiland’s constitutional rights by “using excessive and unreasonable force.”
  • Count Two claims that the Sheriff’s Office “did not adequately train or supervise its Sheriff Deputies in … [the use of] appropriate and proportioned force” in detaining mentally ill citizens
  • Count Three claims that Fleming, Johnson, and the Sheriff’s Office conspired to cover up their violations of Weiland’s constitutional rights
  • Count Four claims that the Sheriff’s Office had a custom or policy of using its internal affairs investigations to “perpetrate a coverup of any misconduct by Deputies.”

The District Court again dismissed all four of the § 1983 claims, this time with prejudice, because  pleading them “duplicated the violations of Rule 8(a)(2) and 10(b), which formed the basis of the court’s [earlier] dismissal of th[o]se counts.” It concluded that the claims failed to prove any factual support for his allegations beyond referring to alleged practices and policies in the Sheriff’s Office. However, following a similar pattern to the first dismissal, the District Court conceded that the complaint did in fact state a conspiracy claim, even though it was dismissed.

Defining Shotgun Pleadings

The Eleventh Circuit first considered under what authority the District Court relied on in dismissing Weiland’s claims. The Court’s best guess was that the District Court relied on its inherent authority to control its docket and ensure prompt resolution of lawsuits, which in some circumstances includes the power to dismiss a complaint for failure to comply with Rule 8(a)(2) and Rule 10(b). The Court therefore reviewed the dismissal under an abuse of discretion standard of review.

The Court began by explaining that Rule 8(a)(2) required a complaint to include “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” It also noted that Rule 10(b) provides that

A party must state its claims or defenses in numbered paragraphs, each limited as far as practicable to a single set of circumstances. A later pleading may refer by number to a paragraph in an earlier pleading. If doing so would promote clarity, each claim founded on a separate transaction or occurrence – and each defense other than a denial – must be stated in a separate count or defense.

If a complaint does not meet these standards, the Court wrote that it is commonly referred to as a “shotgun pleading.” But what is a shotgun pleading? The Eleventh Circuit asked the same question.

The Court discussed a “thirty-year salvo of criticism aimed at shotgun pleadings,” writing that “there is no ceasefire in sight.” After sifting through its past opinions, the Court identified four rough types or categories of shotgun pleadings, writing:

The most common type – by a long shot – is a complaint containing multiple counts where each 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 venial sin of being replete with conclusory, vague and immaterial facts not obviously connected to any particular cause of action.

The third type… 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 Court wrote that the unifying characteristics of these four types is that they all fail in some aspect to give the defendants adequate notice of the claims against them and the grounds upon which each claim rests.

Applying Characteristics of Shotgun Pleadings

While the Court did not tackle all four of the counts dismissed by the District Court, it held that the District Court abused its discretion when it dismissed Weiland’s Count One and Count Three claims against Fleming and Johnson on the grounds they did not comply with Rule 8(a)(2) and 10(b). While the Court admitted those two counts might have some faults, it concluded that they were informative enough to permit a court to readily determine if they state a claim upon which relief can be granted. After all, the District Court already recognized Counts One and Three as stating claims upon which relief can be granted by holding that Weiland made valid fourth amendment and conspiracy claims.

The District Court dismissed Weiland’s § 1983 claims in Count One and Three because the counts incorporated “all of the factual allegations contained in paragraphs 1 through 49 inclusive,” and also failed to identify “which allegations are relevant to the elements of which legal theories” and “which constitutional amendment governs which counts.” The Eleventh Circuit wrote that at first glance these counts might appear to have made common mistakes of shotgun pleading, but that is not the case.

The Court wrote that in Weiland’s case, the allegations of each count were not rolled into every successive count on down the line. Furthermore, the Court determined that this was not a situation where a failure to more precisely parcel out and identify the facts relevant to each claim materially increased the burden of understanding the factual allegations in each count. Therefore, the Court held that Count One did adequately put Fleming and Johnson on notice of the specific claims against them because Weiland organized the 49 paragraphs into three clear subsections. As to Count Three, even though only one of Weiland’s alleged deprivations of constitutional rights yields a cognizable claim, the Court held that the count also gave Fleming and Johnson adequate notice.

Finally, the Court disagreed with the District Court’s characterization of Weiland’s complaint as “failing to identify … which constitutional amendments govern which counts.” The Court held that the complaint did identify specific amendments, and just because the count included constitutional amendments under which Weiland is not entitled to relief, that is not dispositive of a Rule 8(a)(2) and 10(b) dismissal. Rather, a dismissal under those two rules is appropriate only where it is “virtually impossible to know which allegations of fact are intended to support which claim(s) for relief.”

The takeaway from this case is in the Court’s clarification of what constitutes a shotgun pleading. The Court accepted two counts from Weiland’s amended complaint, even though not perfectly composed, due to the viability of the claims. This means that when courts have conceded that a case has been made for a certain claim, the courts cannot simply dismiss based on the format of the pleading so long as the pleading gives adequate notice to the other party.

The attorneys at Fuerst Ittleman David & Joseph have extensive experience in the areas of complex civil and administrative litigation at both the state and federal levels. Should you have any questions or need further assistance, please contact us by email at contact@fidjlaw.com or telephone at 305.350.5690.