Front Loading and Heavy Lifting: How Pre-Dismissal Discovery Can Address the Detrimental Effect of Iqbal on Civil Rights Cases
Although the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are trans-substantive, they have a greater detrimental effect on certain substantive claims. In particular, the Supreme Court’s recent interpretation of Rule 8(a)(2)’s pleading requirement and Rule 12(b)(6)’s dismissal criteria - in Bell Atlantic v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal - sets forth a plausibility pleading standard which makes it more difficult for potentially meritorious civil rights claims alleging intentional discrimination to survive dismissal. Such claims are more vulnerable to dismissal because: plaintiffs alleging intentional discrimination often plead facts consistent with both legal and illegal conduct; discriminatory intent is often difficult, if not impossible, to unearth pre-discovery because of informational inequities between the parties; and the plausibility standard’s subjective nature fails to provide sufficient guidance to courts ruling on dismissal motions.
This increased risk of dismissal threatens to undermine civil rights enforcement, compromise court access, and incentivize unethical conduct. In response to this risk, courts are empowered and encouraged to utilize narrow, targeted, pre-dismissal discovery to determine plausibility at the pleading stage (“plausibility discovery”) so that the trans-substantive application of the Rules does not work an injustice against civil rights and other cases involving informational inequities. Courts should consider permitting some limited discovery towards the front of the litigation (front loading) for the purpose of determining a case’s viability (heavy lifting). Courts already use early, targeted, pre-merits discovery to resolve threshold issues such as class certification, qualified immunity and jurisdiction. These models, while imperfect, illustrate how courts are willing and able to order clearly defined, narrow discovery to successfully resolve various preliminary litigation matters. Similarly, plausibility discovery is authorized and justified on policy grounds. This Article concludes with the types of arguments parties are likely to make post-Iqbal and a roadmap for how courts can order plausibility discovery while equitably balancing the parties’ competing interests.