Court of Appeals Interprets Super. Ct. Civ. R. 8(a) to Include Plausibility Standard

On September 15, 2011, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Potomac Dev. Corp. v. District of Columbia, No. 10-CV-632, slip op. (D.C. Sept. 15, 2011), which, inter alia, interpreted Super. Ct. Civ. R. 8(a) to include a “plausibility standard” for pleading civil claims in the District of Columbia. This new pleading standard sets a higher hurdle that civil claims must pass when challenged by a motion to dismiss pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R.12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

By way of background, Rule 8(a) mirrors Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a) in that both rules state that a pleading must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” As a result, the Court of Appeals has looked to case law interpreting Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a) to interpret Rule 8(a). In particular, it has looked to and applied the relatively liberal pleading standard adopted by the United States Supreme Court in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41 (1957), which held, applying Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a), that dismissal for failure to state a claim is not permissible “unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.” 355 U.S. at 45-46; see, e.g., Darrow v. Dillingham & Murphy, LLP, 902 A.2d 135, 137-38 (D.C. 2006) (stating pleading standard adopted in Conley, supra); Jordan Keys & Jessamy, LLP v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 870 A.2d 58, 62 (D.C. 2005) (same).

Approximately fifty years after Conley was decided, however, the Supreme Court in Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009) overruled the Conley standard in favor of a more stringent “plausibility standard” which it explained as follows:

A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. The plausibility standard is not akin to a “probability requirement,” but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully. Where a complaint pleads facts that are “merely consistent with” a defendant’s liability, it “stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of ‘entitlement to relief.’”

Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949 (internal citations omitted; quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007)). In adopting the plausibility standard, the Supreme Court suggested the following approach for determining whether a claim satisfies the pleading requirements of Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a):

. . . a court considering a motion to dismiss can choose to begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.

Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1950.

Several opinions of the Court of Appeals decided after the Supreme Court adopted the plausibility standard indicated that the Court of Appeals was aware of the plausibility standard but had not yet decided whether the standard applies in the District of Columbia. E.g., Grayson v. AT&T Corp., 15 A.3d 219, 229 n.16 (D.C. 2011) (en banc); Solers, Inc. v. Doe, 977 A.2d 941, 948 n.5 (D.C. 2009). Then, in April 2011, a division of the Court of Appeals comprised of Judges Washington, Blackburne-Rigsby, and King decided Mazza v. Housecraft LLC, 18 A.3d 786 (D.C. 2011), which appeared to resolve the issue by adopting the plausibility standard. Id. at 790-91. The division subsequently learned, however, that the parties had already settled the case when the opinion in Mazza was issued and, as a result, in June 2011, the division vacated the opinion in Mazza thus leaving uncertain again whether the plausibility standard applies in the District of Columbia. Mazza v. Housecraft, LLC, 22 A.3d 820 (D.C. 2011).

On September 15, 2011, a division of the Court of Appeals comprised of Judges Glickman, Blackburne-Rigsby, and Epstein decided Potomac Dev. Corp. v. District of Columbia, No. 10-CV-632, slip op. (D.C. Sept. 15, 2011), which put to rest any lingering doubts as to whether the plausibility standard applies in the District of Columbia by once again adopting the standard. Id. at 16-18. In doing so, the opinion stated that the division was persuaded by the opinion in Mazza, id. at 18 n.4, which is not surprising because the opinion in Mazza was authored by Judge Blackburne-Rigsby who was one of the judges who decided Potomac Dev. Corp.

The Court of Appeals opinion in Potomac Dev. Corp. shows that the plausibility standard has teeth. The Court of Appeals applied the standard to dismiss one of the plaintiffs’ claims against the District of Columbia; specifically, a  “delay-based” taking claim under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Id. at 6-29. The Court of Appeals stated that, to adequately allege a  “delay-based” taking claim, the plaintiffs were required to allege facts permitting plausible inferences that the District of Columbia’s planned taking of their property was subject to “extraordinary delay” and that the delay caused the plaintiffs to suffer “severe economic harm.” Id. at 1-2, 7-15. In dismissing the claim, the Court of Appeals acknowledged that the plaintiffs had pled facts consistent with those required elements, including but not limited to a lengthy delay in the initiation of eminent domain proceedings after the District of Columbia gave notice of its intention to initiate such proceedings, and resulting adverse economic impact on the plaintiffs. Id. at 20-29. The Court of Appeals concluded, however, that the plaintiffs’ allegations stopped short of providing the factual content necessary to show that it was “plausible” and not merely “conceivable” that the delay in the taking of their property was extraordinary or that the delay caused economic harm to the plaintiffs that was severe. Id. at 29. The Court of Appeals therefore dismissed the claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Id.