Suvarna Garge (Editor)

Ashcroft v. Iqbal

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Docket nos.  07-1015
End date  2009
Argument  Oral argument
Ashcroft v. Iqbal httpsstatic01nytcomimages20090106world0
Full case name  John D. Ashcroft, former Attorney General, et al., Petitioners v. Javaid Iqbal, et al.
Citations  556 U.S. 662 (more) 129 S.Ct. 1937
Prior history  dismissal denied 2005 WL 2375202 (E.D.N.Y., 2005), upheld 490 F. 3d 143 (2nd. Cir.), Reversed and remanded U.S.
Majority  Kennedy, joined by Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito
Similar  Bivens v Six Unknown, Farmer v Brennan, Lujan v Defenders of Wildlife, Civil Rights Cases, Graham v Connor

Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held that top government officials were not liable for the actions of their subordinates absent evidence that they ordered the allegedly discriminatory activity. At issue was whether current and former federal officials, including FBI Director Robert Mueller and former United States Attorney General John Ashcroft, were entitled to qualified immunity against an allegation that they knew of or condoned racial and religious discrimination against individuals detained after the September 11 attacks. The decision "transformed civil litigation in the federal courts" by making it much easier for courts to dismiss individuals' suits.



Javad Iqbal, a Pakistani-American cable television installer from Hicksville, New York, was arrested in New York in November 2001, on charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States and fraud in relation to identification documents (violations of 18 U.S.C. §§ 371 and 1028) and placed in pretrial detention at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York. He alleged that FBI officials carried out a discriminatory policy by designating him as a person "of high interest" in the investigation of the September 11 attacks solely because of his race, religion, or national origin. Owing to this designation he was placed in the detention center's Administrative Maximum Special Housing Unit for over six months while awaiting the fraud trial. Iqbal claimed that on the day he was transferred to the special unit, prison guards, without provocation, "picked him up and threw him against the wall, kicked him in the stomach, punched him in the face, and dragged him across the room." He said that after being attacked a second time he sought medical attention but was denied care for two weeks. According to Iqbal’s complaint, prison staff in the special unit subjected him to unjustified strip and body cavity searches, verbally berated him as a "terrorist" and "Muslim killer," refused to give him adequate food, and intentionally turned on air conditioning during the winter and heating during the summer, He claimed that prison staff interfered with his attempts to pray and engage in religious study, and with his access to counsel. Mr. Iqbal pleaded guilty to using another man's Social Security card on April 22, 2002, served a prison term until his release on January 15, 2003, and was later deported to Pakistan.

After being released, Iqbal brought claims under implied causes of action established by Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents for violations of his First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendment rights as well as various statutory claims, including Federal Tort Claims Act claims against the United States seeking compensatory and punitive damages. Iqbal argued that Mueller and Ashcroft personally condoned the decision to detain him as well as Arab immigrants.

The Office of Inspector General of the Department of Justice had previously investigated and confirmed accounts of abuse of September 11 detainees like Mr. Iqbal.

The federal government argued that Iqbal's legal filings were not specific enough in linking the government officials with a policy of detaining Arab immigrants and Muslims.

The District Court found that the facts alleged in Iqbal's complaint were sufficient. The district court also found that the OIG Report suggested that petitioners were personally involved in “creating or implementing” the policies that led to respondent’s confinement in the ADMAX SHU.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the lower court and refused to dismiss the action, concluding that it was plausible enough to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.

The Supreme Court granted review, in part, to address “whether conclusory allegations that high-level government officials had knowledge of alleged wrongdoing by subordinate officials are sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss in an action brought under Bivens.”

Opinion of the Court

In a 5 to 4 decision delivered on May 18, 2009 by Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit's decision (which held that the Plaintiff did plead sufficient facts). The Supreme Court held that Iqbal’s complaint failed to plead sufficient facts to state a claim for purposeful and unlawful discrimination. The court affirmed that the Second Circuit had subject-matter jurisdiction to affirm the District Court’s order denying petitioners’ motion to dismiss.

Supervisory liability

The Court found that according to precedent, government officials could not be held liable for the unconstitutional conduct of their subordinates under a theory of respondeat superior and that because vicarious liability was inapplicable to Bivens and § 1983 suits, a plaintiff must plead that each Government-official defendant, through the official's own individual actions, has violated the Constitution. To do so, the Court found,

"Where the claim is invidious discrimination in contravention of the First and Fifth Amendments, our decisions make clear the plaintiff must plead and prove that the defendant acted with discriminatory purpose. Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520, 540–541 (1993) (First Amendment); Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229, 240 (1976) (Fifth Amendment). Under extant precedent purposeful discrimination requires more than “intent as volition or intent as awareness of consequences.” Personnel Administrator of Mass. v. Feeney, 442 U.S. 256, 279 (1979). It instead involves a decisionmaker’s undertaking a course of action "'because of,' not merely 'in spite of,' [the action's] adverse effects upon an identifiable group." Ibid. It follows that, to state a claim based on a violation of a clearly established right, respondent must plead sufficient factual matter to show that petitioners adopted and implemented the detention policies at issue not for a neutral, investigative reason but for the purpose of discriminating on account of race, religion, or national origin."

The Court rejected Iqbal's argument that under a theory of "supervisory liability," Ashcroft and Mueller could be liable for "knowledge and acquiescence in their subordinates' use of discriminatory criteria to make classification decisions among detainees."

Rule 8 pleading standard

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a complaint must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” “[D]etailed factual allegations” are not required, Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), at 555, but the court did find that Rule 8 requires the non-moving party to show plausible factual allegations, accepted as true, to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Id. at 570. A claim has facial plausibility when the pleaded factual content allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Id. at 556. In so doing, the Court confirmed that the standard set forth in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41 (1957) (the Supreme Court case that had defined the Rule 8 pleading standard prior to Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly), should not be followed in any context. The two cases are often referred to by the portmanteau Twiqbal.

The Court restated the substance and application of the Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly test for the sufficiency of pleadings:

Two working principles underlie our decision in Twombly. First, the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. ... Second, only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss. Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will, as the Court of Appeals observed, be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense. In keeping with these principles 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. Our decision in Twombly illustrates the two-pronged approach.

Applying this test to the plaintiff's complaint, the Court held that Iqbal’s pleadings did not comply with Rule 8 under Twombly. The Court found that several of his allegations - that petitioners agreed to subject him to harsh conditions as a matter of policy, solely on account of discriminatory factors and for no legitimate penological interest, that Ashcroft was that policy's "principal architect", and that Mueller was "instrumental" in its adoption and execution - were conclusory and not entitled to be assumed true. The Court decided that given that the September 11 attacks were perpetrated by Arab Muslims, it was not surprising that a legitimate policy directing law enforcement to arrest and detain individuals because of their suspected link to the attacks would produce a disparate, incidental impact on Arab Muslims, even though the policy's purpose was to target neither Arabs nor Muslims. Even if the complaint's well-pleaded facts gave rise to a plausible inference that Iqbal’s arrest was the result of unconstitutional discrimination, that inference alone did not entitle him to relief since his claims rested solely on their ostensible policy of holding detainees categorized as “of high interest,” but the complaint does not contain facts plausibly showing that their policy was based on discriminatory factors.

The Court rejected three of Iqbal’s arguments. First, the Court found that Iqbal's claim that Twombly should be limited to its antitrust context was not supported by that case or the Federal Rules. Second, the Court found that Rule 8's pleading requirements need not be relaxed based on the Second Circuit's instruction that the District Court in-camera discovery to preserve petitioners' qualified-immunity defense in anticipation of a summary judgment motion. Third, the Court found that Rule 9(b), which requires particularity when pleading "fraud or mistake" but allows "other conditions of a person’s mind [to] be alleged generally," did not require courts to credit a complaint's conclusory statements without reference to its factual context.

The Supreme Court concluded that the Second Circuit should decide in the first instance whether to remand to the District Court to allow Iqbal to seek leave to amend his deficient complaint. The court of appeals then remanded the case to the district court so that it could decide the issue. Before the trial began, the parties settled out of court. This settlement (unlike the court's ruling) ended his lawsuit against all government officials involved.

Mr. Iqbal's claims against lower-level officials, including guards and supervisors at the detention center, are unaffected by the court's ruling.

Souter's dissent

Justice Souter wrote a dissent joined by Justice Stevens, Justice Ginsburg and Justice Breyer, saying that despite the fact that Ashcroft and Mueller had conceded that an officer could be subject to Bivens liability as a supervisor on grounds other than respondeat superior, "(t)he court apparently rejects this concession and ... does away with supervisory liability under Bivens. The majority then misapplies the pleading standard under Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), to conclude that the complaint fails to state a claim." Souter goes on to say that the main fallacy in the majority’s position is because they are looking at Iqbal's allegations in isolation and not as a unit. Furthermore, Iqbal is alleging not only that Ashcroft and Mueller allowed the discrimination policy, but that they created it.

Breyer's dissent

Justice Breyer filed a separate dissent saying that neither the briefs nor the Court's opinion provided convincing grounds for finding that trial courts had inadequate means to prevent unwarranted interference with "the proper execution of the work of the government."


The decision, referenced with predecessor opinion Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly as "Twiqbal", has been described as possibly "the most consequential ruling in Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.'s 10-year tenure," because it has "transformed civil litigation in the federal courts," to the detriment of individuals.

Because "information about wrongdoing is often secret, and plaintiffs need discovery to unearth the facts" about dangerous products or discriminatory practices, courts are "potentially losing cases that could play an important role not only in the lives of plaintiffs but also in the law and society.

Ehad Elmaghraby, an Egyptian who was part of the original suit, settled with the U.S. government for $300,000 before the case reached the Supreme Court.


Ashcroft v. Iqbal Wikipedia