Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Short and Plain Statement of the Claim (Stephen Stapleton)

By Steve Stapleton

[I]n the reign of the Stuarts there was one counsel who had offended the court by preparing a needlessly long and prolix pleading on parchment.  He was ordered to have his pleadings taken, a large hole to be cut in the middle, he was to have his head pushed through it, and he was to attend the first day of the term of every court with his head through the pleadings.

Brooklyn Downtown Hotel, LLC v. New York Hotel & Motel Trades Council, AFL-CIO, No. 14-cv-6067 (ILG), 2015 WL 779441, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 25, 2015)(quoting Lord Buckmaster, The Romance of the Law, 11 A.B.A.J. 579, 581 (Sept. 1925), as cited in The UPS Store, Inc., v. Hagan, Case No. 14-cv-1210 at 4 (S.D.N.Y., March 24, 2015, Pauley, J.).

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires that “a pleading … must contain … a short and plain statement of the claim ….”  Rule 8(d)(1) expands on that admonition by requiring that factual allegations must be “simple, concise, and direct.”

“The ‘short and plain’ statement requirement of Rule 8 serves many salutary purposes.  It focuses litigants and judges on the real issues in dispute.  It … aids the public in understanding the judicial process.”  The UPS Store, Inc., v. Hagan, Case No. 14-cv-1210 at 2 (S.D.N.Y., March 24, 2015, Pauley, J.)  Disregarding its mandate has consequences.  “[I]t … spawns mischief, … [it] is self-defeating.  It chokes the docket and obscures otherwise meritorious claims and defenses.  It can … highlight fatal weaknesses in a party’s [own] case … and [it] places an unjustified burden on the court ….”  Id. at 3.  Most importantly, perhaps, it is the antithesis of “secur[ing] the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination” of [a litigant’s] claims.”  Fed.R.Civ.P. 1.

While it is the facts in the UPS case that occupy the pleadings, the facts are largely beside the point.  UPS had filed a complaint against the Hagans consisting of a “sprawling 175 paragraph[s] … larded with more than 1,400 pages of exhibits.”  Id. at 2.  “[T]he Hagans responded with a 210-page, 1,020-paragraph Answer asserting twelve counterclaims and attaching voluminous exhibits.”  Id.  The Court expressed its concern about the length of the pleadings.  Defendants proposed amending their answer to identify counter-defendants.  The Court urged the Defendants to downsize their pleadings and several weeks later the Defendants responded, filing an Amended Answer that came in at a “breathtaking 1,263 paragraphs, spanning 303 pages, … brim[ming] with irrelevant and redundant allegations.”  Id.

Acknowledging the ample authority that empowers a court to dismiss pleadings for failure to comply with Rule 8, and sorely tempted by the in terrorem remedy adopted by Lord Buckmaster, the Court nevertheless refrained, fashioning “a pragmatic solution … address[ing] each of the counterclaims on their merits, giving many more thought than they deserve,” (id. at 4), and ultimately dismissing all but one.

Charles Clark, the chief architect of the federal rules, had a vision of the Federal Rules that was driven by two principles:  all cases should be decided on the merits and that “a basic goal in litigation should be economy of time and resources.”  Goodman, On the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure: What Did the Drafters Intend?, 21 SUFFOLK U. L. REV. 351, 357 (1987).  Those goals are increasingly elusive, attenuated by gamesmanship in both the pleading and discovery stage.  Strong jurisprudence is one remedy.  Another is more rational pleading.

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