Twombly Trumps Conley: Ashcroft v. Iqbal and the Quest for a Standard Pleading Standard

Umair Khan, Staff Writer & Robert Magee, Lead Writer

        On December 10, 2008, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Ashcroft v. Iqbal.1  The case involves a Pakistani Man, Javaid Iqbal.  In the months after September 11th, the Justice Department set out to determine the legal status of every Muslim born man in the New York Metropolitan area.2  Iqbal, a cable repairman, was working in New Jersey when he was brought in for investigation by the Department of Justice on November 2, 2001.  When it was discovered that Iqbal’s immigration status was not current, Iqbal was confined to the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, New York.3  When he first entered the MDC, he was housed among the general population, but his immigration status, coupled with his Pakistani origin and Islamic faith earned him a “high interest” designation.4  He was thusly confined to a special unit within the MDC, the ADMAX-SHU (“Administrative Maximum Secure Housing Unit”).5  Without ever being afforded a hearing, Iqbal was detained at the MDC for over a year and, he alleges, subjected to horrific verbal, mental and physical abuse, including being left outside during winter without adequate clothing, incessant and unnecessary strip and cavity searches, and starvation.6

        After being allowed to plea to immigration violations, Mr. Iqbal was deported.  Having returned home, though, he has sought legal redress for violations of his Due Process and First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendment rights under both Bivens7and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims, along with numerous statutory violations.8  Significantly, Mr. Iqbal alleges that Attorney General John Ashcroft and other officials at the Department of Justice and FBI approved the “hold and clear” policy which led to his being unconstitutionally detained without a hearing.9  Proving such an allegation is determinative of whether a plaintiff has established a valid § 1983 claim.10

        Unfortunately, in writing his initial complaint, Mr. Iqbal had no smoking gun to prove this.  He had no memo or tape in which Attorney General Ashcroft explicitly authorized officials at the MDC to violate Mr. Iqbal’s rights and it was this lack of a specific allegation that Ashcroft and other defendants moved for dismissal of Iqbal’s claim on the grounds that he, inter alia, hadn’t sufficiently plead a cause of action under FRCP 12(b)(6).11  The Eastern District of New York did not agree, the defendant’s appealed, lost in the Second Circuit12, and went on to win a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court.

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