Ashcroft v. Iqbal - 07-1015 (2009)

556 U. S. ____ (2009)
NO. 07-1015


on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the second circuit

[May 18, 2009]

   Justice Souter, with whom Justice Stevens, Justice Ginsburg, and Justice Breyer join, dissenting.

   This case is here on the uncontested assumption that Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U. S. 388 (1971), allows personal liability based on a federal officer’s violation of an individual’s rights under the First and Fifth Amendments, and it comes to us with the explicit concession of petitioners Ashcroft and Mueller that an officer may be subject to Bivens liability as a supervisor on grounds other than respondeat superior. The Court apparently rejects this concession and, although it has no bearing on the majority’s resolution of this case, 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. I respectfully dissent from both the rejection of supervisory liability as a cognizable claim in the face of petitioners’ concession, and from the holding that the complaint fails to satisfy Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.



   Respondent Iqbal was arrested in November 2001 on charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States and fraud in relation to identification documents, and was placed in pretrial detention at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York. Iqbal v. Hasty, 490 F. 3d 143, 147–148 (CA2 2007). He alleges 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. Id., at 148. As I will mention more fully below, Iqbal contends that Ashcroft and Mueller were at the very least aware of the discriminatory detention policy and condoned it (and perhaps even took part in devising it), thereby violating his First and Fifth Amendment rights.[Footnote 1]

   Iqbal claims 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.” First Amended Complaint in No. 04–CV–1809 (JG) (JA), ¶113, App. to Pet. for Cert. 176a (hereinafter Complaint). He says that after being attacked a second time he sought medical attention but was denied care for two weeks. Id., ¶¶187–188, at 189a. According to Iqbal’s complaint, prison staff in the special unit subjected him to unjustified strip and body cavity searches, id., ¶¶136–140, at 181a, verbally berated him as a “ ‘terrorist’ ” and “ ‘Muslim killer,’ ” id., ¶87, at 170a–171a, refused to give him adequate food, id., ¶91, at 171a–172a, and intentionally turned on air conditioning during the winter and heating during the summer, id., ¶84, at 170a. He claims that prison staff interfered with his attempts to pray and engage in religious study, id., ¶¶153–154, at 183a–184a, and with his access to counsel, id., ¶¶168, 171, at 186a–187a.

   The District Court denied Ashcroft and Mueller’s motion to dismiss Iqbal’s discrimination claim, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Ashcroft and Mueller then asked this Court to grant certiorari on two questions:

“1. Whether a conclusory allegation that a cabinet-level officer or other high-ranking official knew of, condoned, or agreed to subject a plaintiff to allegedly unconstitutional acts purportedly committed by subordinate officials is sufficient to state individual-capacity claims against those officials under Bivens.

“2. Whether a cabinet-level officer or other high-ranking official may be held personally liable for the allegedly unconstitutional acts of subordinate officials on the ground that, as high-level supervisors, they had constructive notice of the discrimination allegedly carried out by such subordinate officials.” Pet. for Cert. I.

The Court granted certiorari on both questions. The first is about pleading; the second goes to the liability standard.

   In the first question, Ashcroft and Mueller did not ask whether “a cabinet-level officer or other high-ranking official” who “knew of, condoned, or agreed to subject a plaintiff to allegedly unconstitutional acts committed by subordinate officials” was subject to liability under Bivens. In fact, they conceded in their petition for certiorari that they would be liable if they had “actual knowledge” of discrimination by their subordinates and exhibited “ ‘deliberate indifference’ ” to that discrimination. Pet. for Cert. 29 (quoting Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U. S. 825, 837 (1994)). Instead, they asked the Court to address whether Iqbal’s allegations against them (which they call conclusory) were sufficient to satisfy Rule 8(a)(2), and in particular whether the Court of Appeals misapplied our decision in Twombly construing that rule. Pet. for Cert. 11–24.

   In the second question, Ashcroft and Mueller asked this Court to say whether they could be held personally liable for the actions of their subordinates based on the theory that they had constructive notice of their subordinates’ unconstitutional conduct. Id., at 25–33. This was an odd question to pose, since Iqbal has never claimed that Ashcroft and Mueller are liable on a constructive notice theory. Be that as it may, the second question challenged only one possible ground for imposing supervisory liability under Bivens. In sum, both questions assumed that a defendant could raise a Bivens claim on theories of supervisory liability other than constructive notice, and neither question asked the parties or the Court to address the elements of such liability.

   The briefing at the merits stage was no different. Ashcroft and Mueller argued that the factual allegations in Iqbal’s complaint were insufficient to overcome their claim of qualified immunity; they also contended that they could not be held liable on a theory of constructive notice. Again they conceded, however, that they would be subject to supervisory liability if they “had actual knowledge of the assertedly discriminatory nature of the classification of suspects as being ‘of high interest’ and they were deliberately indifferent to that discrimination.” Brief for Petitioners 50; see also Reply Brief for Petitioners 21–22. Iqbal argued that the allegations in his complaint were sufficient under Rule 8(a)(2) and Twombly, and conceded that as a matter of law he could not recover under a theory of respondeat superior. See Brief for Respondent Iqbal 46. Thus, the parties agreed as to a proper standard of supervisory liability, and the disputed question was whether Iqbal’s complaint satisfied Rule 8(a)(2).

   Without acknowledging the parties’ agreement as to the standard of supervisory liability, the Court asserts that it must sua sponte decide the scope of supervisory liability here. Ante, at 11–13. I agree that, absent Ashcroft and Mueller’s concession, that determination would have to be made; without knowing the elements of a supervisory liability claim, there would be no way to determine whether a plaintiff had made factual allegations amounting to grounds for relief on that claim. See Twombly, 550 U. S., at 557–558. But deciding the scope of supervisory Bivens liability in this case is uncalled for. There are several reasons, starting with the position Ashcroft and Mueller have taken and following from it.

   First, Ashcroft and Mueller have, as noted, made the critical concession that a supervisor’s knowledge of a subordinate’s unconstitutional conduct and deliberate indifference to that conduct are grounds for Bivens liability. Iqbal seeks to recover on a theory that Ashcroft and Mueller at least knowingly acquiesced (and maybe more than acquiesced) in the discriminatory acts of their subordinates; if he can show this, he will satisfy Ashcroft and Mueller’s own test for supervisory liability. See Farmer, supra, at 842 (explaining that a prison official acts with “deliberate indifference” if “the official acted or failed to act despite his knowledge of a substantial risk of serious harm”). We do not normally override a party’s concession, see, e.g., United States v. International Business Machines Corp., 517 U. S. 843, 855 (1996) (holding that “[i]t would be inappropriate for us to [e]xamine in this case, without the benefit of the parties’ briefing,” an issue the Government had conceded), and doing so is especially inappropriate when, as here, the issue is unnecessary to decide the case, see infra, at 8. I would therefore accept Ashcroft and Mueller’s concession for purposes of this case and proceed to consider whether the complaint alleges at least knowledge and deliberate indifference.

   Second, because of the concession, we have received no briefing or argument on the proper scope of supervisory liability, much less the full-dress argument we normally require. Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U. S. 643, 676–677 (1961) (Harlan, J., dissenting). We consequently are in no position to decide the precise contours of supervisory liability here, this issue being a complicated one that has divided the Courts of Appeals. See infra, at 7–8. This Court recently remarked on the danger of “bad decisionmaking” when the briefing on a question is “woefully inadequate,” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U. S. ___, ___ (2009) (slip op., at 14), yet today the majority answers a question with no briefing at all. The attendant risk of error is palpable.

   Finally, the Court’s approach is most unfair to Iqbal. He was entitled to rely on Ashcroft and Mueller’s concession, both in their petition for certiorari and in their merits briefs, that they could be held liable on a theory of knowledge and deliberate indifference. By overriding that concession, the Court denies Iqbal a fair chance to be heard on the question.


   The majority, however, does ignore the concession. According to the majority, because Iqbal concededly cannot recover on a theory of respondeat superior, it follows that he cannot recover under any theory of supervisory liability. Ante, at 13. The majority says that in a Bivens action, “where masters do not answer for the torts of their servants,” “the term ‘supervisory liability’ is a misnomer,” and that “[a]bsent vicarious liability, each Government official, his or her title notwithstanding, is only liable for his or her own misconduct.” Ibid. Lest there be any mistake, in these words the majority is not narrowing the scope of supervisory liability; it is eliminating Bivens supervisory liability entirely. The nature of a supervisory liability theory is that the supervisor may be liable, under certain conditions, for the wrongdoing of his subordinates, and it is this very principle that the majority rejects. Ante, at 19 (“[P]etitioners cannot be held liable unless they themselves acted on account of a constitutionally protected characteristic”).

   The dangers of the majority’s readiness to proceed without briefing and argument are apparent in its cursory analysis, which rests on the assumption that only two outcomes are possible here: respondeat superior liability, in which “an employer is subject to liability for torts committed by employees while acting within the scope of their employment,” Restatement (Third) of Agency §2.04 (2005), or no supervisory liability at all. The dichotomy is false. Even if an employer is not liable for the actions of his employee solely because the employee was acting within the scope of employment, there still might be conditions to render a supervisor liable for the conduct of his subordinate. See, e.g., Whitfield v. Meléndez-Rivera, 431 F. 3d 1, 14 (CA1 2005) (distinguishing between respondeat superior liability and supervisory liability); Bennett v. Eastpointe, 410 F. 3d 810, 818 (CA6 2005) (same); Richardson v. Goord, 347 F. 3d 431, 435 (CA2 2003) (same); Hall v. Lombardi, 996 F. 2d 954, 961 (CA8 1993) (same).

   In fact, there is quite a spectrum of possible tests for supervisory liability: it could be imposed where a supervisor has actual knowledge of a subordinate’s constitutional violation and acquiesces, see, e.g., Baker v. Monroe Twp., 50 F. 3d 1186, 1994 (CA3 1995); Woodward v. Worland, 977 F. 2d 1392, 1400 (CA10 1992); or where supervisors “ ‘know about the conduct and facilitate it, approve it, condone it, or turn a blind eye for fear of what they might see,’ ” International Action Center v. United States, 365 F. 3d 20, 28 (CADC 2004) (Roberts, J.) (quoting Jones v. Chicago, 856 F. 2d 985, 992 (CA7 1988) (Posner, J.)); or where the supervisor has no actual knowledge of the violation but was reckless in his supervision of the subordinate, see, e.g., Hall, supra, at 961; or where the supervisor was grossly negligent, see, e.g., Lipsett v. University of Puerto Rico, 864 F. 2d 881, 902 (CA1 1988). I am unsure what the general test for supervisory liability should be, and in the absence of briefing and argument I am in no position to choose or devise one.

   Neither is the majority, but what is most remarkable about its foray into supervisory liability is that its conclusion has no bearing on its resolution of the case. The majority says that all of the allegations in the complaint that Ashcroft and Mueller authorized, condoned, or even were aware of their subordinates’ discriminatory conduct are “conclusory” and therefore are “not entitled to be assumed true.” Ante, at 17. As I explain below, this conclusion is unsound, but on the majority’s understanding of Rule 8(a)(2) pleading standards, even if the majority accepted Ashcroft and Mueller’s concession and asked whether the complaint sufficiently alleges knowledge and deliberate indifference, it presumably would still conclude that the complaint fails to plead sufficient facts and must be dismissed.[Footnote 2]


   Given petitioners’ concession, the complaint satisfies Rule 8(a)(2). Ashcroft and Mueller admit they are liable for their subordinates’ conduct if they “had actual knowledge of the assertedly discriminatory nature of the classification of suspects as being ‘of high interest’ and they were deliberately indifferent to that discrimination.” Brief for Petitioners 50. Iqbal alleges that after the September 11 attacks the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) “arrested and detained thousands of Arab Muslim men,” Complaint ¶47, App. to Pet. for Cert. 164a, that many of these men were designated by high-ranking FBI officials as being “ ‘of high interest,’ ” id., ¶¶48, 50, at 164a, and that in many cases, including Iqbal’s, this designation was made “because of the race, religion, and national origin of the detainees, and not because of any evidence of the detainees’ involvement in supporting terrorist activity,” id., ¶49. The complaint further alleges that Ashcroft was the “principal architect of the policies and practices challenged,” id., ¶10, at 157a, and that Mueller “was instrumental in the adoption, promulgation, and implementation of the policies and practices challenged,” id., ¶11. According to the complaint, Ashcroft and Mueller “knew of, condoned, and willfully and maliciously agreed to subject [Iqbal] to these conditions of confinement as a matter of policy, solely on account of [his] religion, race, and/or national origin and for no legitimate penological interest.” Id., ¶96, at 172a–173a. The complaint thus alleges, at a bare minimum, that Ashcroft and Mueller knew of and condoned the discriminatory policy their subordinates carried out. Actually, the complaint goes further in alleging that Ashcroft and Muller affirmatively acted to create the discriminatory detention policy. If these factual allegations are true, Ashcroft and Mueller were, at the very least, aware of the discriminatory policy being implemented and deliberately indifferent to it.

   Ashcroft and Mueller argue that these allegations fail to satisfy the “plausibility standard” of Twombly. They contend that Iqbal’s claims are implausible because such high-ranking officials “tend not to be personally involved in the specific actions of lower-level officers down the bureaucratic chain of command.” Brief for Petitioners 28. But this response bespeaks a fundamental misunderstanding of the enquiry that Twombly demands. Twombly does not require a court at the motion-to-dismiss stage to consider whether the factual allegations are probably true. We made it clear, on the contrary, that a court must take the allegations as true, no matter how skeptical the court may be. See Twombly, 550 U. S., at 555 (a court must proceed “on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact)”); id., at 556 (“[A] well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of the facts alleged is improbable”); see also Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U. S. 319, 327 (1989) (“Rule 12(b)(6) does not countenance … dismissals based on a judge’s disbelief of a complaint’s factual allegations”). The sole exception to this rule lies with allegations that are 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. That is not what we have here.

   Under Twombly, the relevant question is whether, assuming the factual allegations are true, the plaintiff has stated a ground for relief that is plausible. That is, in Twombly’s words, a plaintiff must “allege facts” that, taken as true, are “suggestive of illegal conduct.” 550 U. S., at 564, n. 8. In Twombly, we were faced with allegations of a conspiracy to violate §1 of the Sherman Act through parallel conduct. The difficulty was that the conduct alleged was “consistent with conspiracy, but just as much in line with a wide swath of rational and competitive business strategy unilaterally prompted by common perceptions of the market.” Id., at 554. We held that in that sort of circumstance, “[a]n allegation of parallel conduct is … much like a naked assertion of conspiracy in a §1 complaint: it gets the complaint close to stating a claim, but without some further factual enhancement it stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of ‘entitlement to relief.’ ” Id., at 557 (brackets omitted). Here, by contrast, the allegations in the complaint are neither confined to naked legal conclusions nor consistent with legal conduct. The complaint alleges that FBI officials discriminated against Iqbal solely on account of his race, religion, and national origin, and it alleges the knowledge and deliberate indifference that, by Ashcroft and Mueller’s own admission, are sufficient to make them liable for the illegal action. Iqbal’s complaint therefore contains “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Id., at 570.

   I do not understand the majority to disagree with this understanding of “plausibility” under Twombly. Rather, the majority discards the allegations discussed above with regard to Ashcroft and Mueller as conclusory, and is left considering only two statements in the complaint: that “the [FBI], under the direction of Defendant MUELLER, arrested and detained thousands of Arab Muslim men … as part of its investigation of the events of September 11,” Complaint ¶47, App. to Pet. for Cert. 164a, and that “[t]he policy of holding post-September-11th detainees in highly restrictive conditions of confinement until they were ‘cleared’ by the FBI was approved by Defendants ASHCROFT and MUELLER in discussions in the weeks after September 11, 2001,” id., ¶69, at 168a. See ante, at 17. I think the majority is right in saying that these allegations suggest only that Ashcroft and Mueller “sought to keep suspected terrorists in the most secure conditions available until the suspects could be cleared of terrorist activity,” ante, at 19, and that this produced “a disparate, incidental impact on Arab Muslims,” ante, at 18. And I agree that the two allegations selected by the majority, standing alone, do not state a plausible entitlement to relief for unconstitutional discrimination.

   But these allegations do not stand alone as the only significant, nonconclusory statements in the complaint, for the complaint contains many allegations linking Ashcroft and Mueller to the discriminatory practices of their subordinates. See Complaint ¶10, App. to Pet. for Cert. 157a (Ashcroft was the “principal architect” of the discriminatory policy); id., ¶11 (Mueller was “instrumental” in adopting and executing the discriminatory policy); id., ¶96, at 172a–173a (Ashcroft and Mueller “knew of, condoned, and willfully and maliciously agreed to subject” Iqbal to harsh conditions “as a matter of policy, solely on account of [his] religion, race, and/or national origin and for no legitimate penological interest”).

   The majority says that these are “bare assertions” that, “much like the pleading of conspiracy in Twombly, amount to nothing more than a ‘formulaic recitation of the elements’ of a constitutional discrimination claim” and therefore are “not entitled to be assumed true.” Ante, at 17 (quoting Twombly, supra, at 555). The fallacy of the majority’s position, however, lies in looking at the relevant assertions in isolation. The complaint contains specific allegations that, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the Chief of the FBI’s International Terrorism Operations Section and the Assistant Special Agent in Charge for the FBI’s New York Field Office implemented a policy that discriminated against Arab Muslim men, including Iqbal, solely on account of their race, religion, or national origin. See Complaint ¶¶47–53, App. to Pet. for Cert. 164a–165a. Viewed in light of these subsidiary allegations, the allegations singled out by the majority as “conclusory” are no such thing. Iqbal’s claim is not that Ashcroft and Mueller “knew of, condoned, and willfully and maliciously agreed to subject” him to a discriminatory practice that is left undefined; his allegation is that “they knew of, condoned, and willfully and maliciously agreed to subject” him to a particular, discrete, discriminatory policy detailed in the complaint. Iqbal does not say merely that Ashcroft was the architect of some amorphous discrimination, or that Mueller was instrumental in an ill-defined constitutional violation; he alleges that they helped to create the discriminatory policy he has described. Taking the complaint as a whole, it gives Ashcroft and Mueller “ ‘fair notice of what the … claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.’ ” Twombly, 550 U. S., at 555 (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U. S. 41, 47 (1957) (omission in original)).

   That aside, the majority’s holding that the statements it selects are conclusory cannot be squared with its treatment of certain other allegations in the complaint as nonconclusory. For example, the majority takes as true the statement that “[t]he policy of holding post-September-11th detainees in highly restrictive conditions of confinement until they were ‘cleared’ by the FBI was approved by Defendants ASHCROFT and MUELLER in discussions in the weeks after September 11, 2001.” Complaint ¶69, App. to Pet. for Cert. 168a; see ante, at 17. This statement makes two points: (1) after September 11, the FBI held certain detainees in highly restrictive conditions, and (2) Ashcroft and Mueller discussed and approved these conditions. If, as the majority says, these allegations are not conclusory, then I cannot see why the majority deems it merely conclusory when Iqbal alleges that (1) after September 11, the FBI designated Arab Muslim detainees as being of “ ‘high interest’ ” “because of the race, religion, and national origin of the detainees, and not because of any evidence of the detainees’ involvement in supporting terrorist activity,” Complaint ¶¶48–50, App. to Pet. for Cert. 164a, and (2) Ashcroft and Mueller “knew of, condoned, and willfully and maliciously agreed” to that discrimination, id., ¶96, at 172a. By my lights, there is no principled basis for the majority’s disregard of the allegations linking Ashcroft and Mueller to their subordinates’ discrimination.

   I respectfully dissent.

Footnote 1

 Iqbal makes no claim against Ashcroft and Mueller based simply on his right, as a pretrial detainee, to be free from punishment prior to an adjudication of guilt on the fraud charges. See Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U. S. 520, 535 (1979).

Footnote 2

 If I am mistaken, and the majority’s rejection of the concession is somehow outcome determinative, then its approach is even more unfair to Iqbal than previously explained, see supra, at 6, for Iqbal had no reason to argue the (apparently dispositive) supervisory liability standard in light of the concession.

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