Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Pleading Standard-Webb V. Nashville Area Habitat for Humanity, Inc.: The Enduring Myth of Conley in Tennessee State Courts

Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Pleading Standard-Webb V. Nashville Area Habitat for Humanity, Inc.: The Enduring Myth of Conley in Tennessee State Courts

Article excerpt

I. Introduction 889

II. The Federal Pleading Landscape: Twombly and Iqbal ..891

III. The Tennessee Standard 899

IV. Webb v. Nashville Area Habitat for Humanity, Inc. 903

V. The Enduring Myth of Notice Pleading 905

VI. Applying Plausibility to Webb 913

VII. Conclusion 915

I. Introduction

Delineating the essential function of a complaint has been the subject of recent controversy in both federal and state courts. In 1942, the Tennessee Supreme Court ("Supreme Court") established that the essential purpose of the complaint is "to give notice of the nature of the wrongs and injuries complained of' so that the opposing party will be able to adequately prepare for trial.1 This "notice pleading" standard was also consistently applied by federal courts for fifty years.* 2 In 2007, the United States Supreme Court ("U.S. Supreme Court"), in an effort to "balance justice more fairly,"3 reinterpreted the function of the pleading to accomplish more than notice: the pleading should state a plausible claim of relief.4 The newly minted plausibility standard has been both influential and controversial in state courts across the country.5 For example, in Tennessee, eight lower courts have cited to the Twombly standard,6 and on one occasion, the Tennessee Court of Appeals recognized its applicability.7

In an effort to reconcile the conflicting lower state court opinions, in 2011, the Supreme Court undertook the arduous task of determining which pleading path Tennessee would follow.8 The Supreme Court held', Tennessee would adhere to the notice pleading standard when considering a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, thus declining to adopt the federal plausibility standard. Webb v. Nashville Area Habitat for Humanity, Inc., 346 S.W.3d 422, 430 (Tenn. 2011). While the court's holding is clear in which standard to apply, it overstates the stringency of the plausibility standard and purports to remain faithful to a standard that the Supreme Court itself has expanded. Additionally, in failing to provide an analysis of the pleading framework that lower courts are to follow, the pleading dilemma remains unresolved in Tennessee, inevitably leading to more uncertainty and inconsistency in lower courts.

II. The Federal Pleading Landscape: Twombly and Iqbal

In 1957, the U.S. Supreme Court articulated the standard to be applied by a federal court when analyzing a motion to dismiss.9 In Conley v. Gibson, the Court ruled that a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)10 ("Rule 12(b)(6)") should be granted only if the court believed "beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim."11 The plaintiff was allowed such broad deference because the Conley Court found that the purpose of the pleading is to give the defendant notice of the claim asserted.12 Thus, under this notice pleading standard, the plaintiff need not set out in detail the facts entitling him to relief; it is sufficient that the facts presented will give the defendant "fair notice" of the claim.13

After fifty years of notice pleading jurisprudence, the U.S. Supreme Court departed from the Conley standard in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly}4 The Court criticized Conley's "no set of facts" language as misleading, because it could be read in isolation as saying that "any statement revealing the theory of the claim will suffice unless its factual impossibility may be shown from the face of the pleadings."15 On the contrary, the Court had always required "grounds" on which the claim could rest, in addition to the "no set of facts" standard.16 Thus, the Twombly Court refined Conley to provide more practical guidelines on the proper grounds for dismissing a complaint.

The U.S. Supreme Court announced in Twombly that a complaint must contain sufficient facts to state a claim for relief that is "plausible on its face." The plaintiffs in Twombly alleged that incumbent local exchange carriers violated antitrust laws by conspiring to restrain trade and inhibit the growth of other competitive local exchange carriers. …

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