A 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court held today that high federal officials need not answer civil claims over post-9/11 detention policies.  The Court ordered dismissal of a complaint by Javaid Iqbal, a Pakistani, against former Attorney General John Ashcroft and ex-FBI Director Robert Mueller.  Ashcroft v. Iqbal, No. 07-1015 (U.S. May 18, 2009).

Mr. Iqbal alleged that he suffered beating and other harsh treatment after Messrs. Ashcroft and Mueller authorized indefinite holding of terrorism suspects whom the government deemed "of high interest".  His complaint also charged lower-level officials, including prison guards, with brutality.

Mr. Iqbal framed his lawsuit, under Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), as a constitutional tort case to remedy a policy of bias against Arab Muslims and non-U.S. citizens.  He asserted that Messrs. Ashcroft and Mueller okayed the policy "solely on account of religion, race, and/or national origin and for no legitimate penological interest." Id., slip op. at 4-5.

The Court made two key rulings:

  1. It rejected "supervisory liability" under Bivens.  "Absent vicarious liability, each Government official, his or her title notwithstanding, is only liable for his or her own misconduct."  Id., slip op. at 13.
  2. It held the complaint too vague to make out a "plausible" Bivens claim against Messrs. Ashcroft and Mueller under the "plausible" pleading standard of Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007).  The Court rejected Mr. Iqbal's allegations that Ashcroft and Mueller knew of and condoned a policy of abusing detainees as "conclusory and not entitled to be assumed true."  Id. at 17.  It also deemed the charge of knowing discrimination implausible.  "On the facts respondent alleges the arrests Mueller oversaw were likely lawful and justified by his nondiscriminatory intent to detain aliens who were illegally present in the United States and who had potential connections to those who committed terrorist acts."  Id. at 18.

Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas joined.  Justices Souter and Breyer dissented; all the dissenting justices joined the Souter opinion.

Blawgletter commented last June, when the Court granted review of the Second Circuit's decision in Iqbal, that "perhaps in the 2008 Term we will get some elaboration on the True Meaning of Twombly."  We now have the answer.  Yes.

Elaboration number one:  The Twombly plausibility screen applies in all civil cases.  Id. at 20. 

Elaboration number two:  Twombly requires a two-step approach:  first, ignore "conclusory" allegations and, second, decide if the non-conclusory allegations plead a "plausible" claim.

The test seems to import into the pleading stage a summary judgment-like standard, which calls for proof that shows a "genuine issue of material fact".  Instead of presenting evidence that raises a fact issue after discovery, you may now have to plead that evidence at the outset.