9/11 decision allows judges to toss civil suits they disfavor

(RAW STORY)   In just two short months, a little-noticed case involving a former detainee’s lawsuit against two Bush administration officials may have become what one attorney called “the most significant Supreme Court decision in a decade” affecting U.S. civil litigation.

Decided in May, Ashcroft v. Iqbal has already been cited over 500 times by lower courts, The New York Times reported on Tuesday.

The lawsuit, which named former Attorney General John Ashcroft and former FBI Director Robert Mueller, stemmed from the alleged torture and humiliation of a Pakistani man, arrested in New York City in November, 2001. In a 5-4 decision, the court found that the two Bush administration officials could not be sued without evidence that they ordered the abusive treatment.

Stephen B. Burbank with the University of Pennsylvania Law School told the Times, “[The Iqbal decision] is a blank check for federal judges to get rid of cases they disfavor.”

Thomas C. Goldstein, an attorney with Washington, D.C. law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, echoed Burbank’s sentiment, calling Iqbal, “the most significant Supreme Court decision in a decade for day-to-day litigation in the federal courts.”

The suit was brought by Javaid Iqbal, a Pakistani man who was working as a cable technician on Long Island. He was arrested in November 2001 on suspicion of fraud involving a bank card.

Iqbal was transferred to a high-security prison, where he was kept in solitary confinement and subjected to daily humiliations and abuse, his lawyers argued. Six months later he was deported to Pakistan.

Believing he was abused purely because of his Muslim faith, Iqbal sued former attorney general John Ashcroft and former FBI Director Robert Mueller, accusing them of instigating his harsh treatment.

The Bush administration moved to have the suit thrown out, countering that Iqbal’s arrest was perfectly legal, and even if it had not been the two officials could not be legally pursued for doing their jobs.

Ginsburg: The court “messed up the federal rules”

After an appeals court gave Iqbal a partial victory, moving the case to the high court’s docket, the Supreme Court sided with the administration, ruling that “Iqbal’s pleadings were insufficient to allow his suit against former Attorney General John Ashcroft and former FBI director Robert Mueller, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion,” noted the American Bar Association.

As for its application to civil litigation, “[the] Iqbal decision now requires plaintiffs to come forward with concrete facts at the outset, and it instructs lower court judges to dismiss lawsuits that strike them as implausible,” reported the Times.

It also severely limits the plaintiff’s right to discovery, which can often be costly to a defendant but immensely valuable to determining the cause of the plaintiff’s damages.

Departing Justice David H. Souter sided with the minority in this case, expressing dismay in his dissent and suggesting the decision could “upend,” said the Times, the federal civil litigation system. He argued that complaints should be accepted “no matter how skeptical the court may be,” so long as the accusations are not “sufficiently fantastic to defy reality as we know it.”

“[Claims] about little green men, or the plaintiff’s recent trip to Pluto, or experiences in time travel,” he said, should be the bar for disqualification.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed, suggesting the court had “messed up the federal rules” for civil suits.

The Supreme Court’s decision may be read here (PDF link).


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