Ashcroft v. Iqbal

PETITIONER: John D. Ashcroft, Former Attorney General, et al.
RESPONDENT: Javaid Iqbal et al.

DOCKET NO.: 07-1015
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 556 US 662 (2009)
GRANTED: Jun 16, 2008
ARGUED: Dec 10, 2008
DECIDED: May 18, 2009

Alexander A. Reinert - argued the cause for the respondents
Gregory G. Garre - Solicitor General, Department of Justice, argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

In the aftermath of September 11th, the FBI arrested thousands of Arab Muslim men as part of its investigation into the attacks. One of these men, Javaid Iqbal, was classified as being a "high interest" detainee at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York. Iqbal claims that during his detention he was segregated from the rest of the prison population and mistreated in several ways, including confinement to a cell for 23 hours a day where he had blinding light shone on him constantly and air conditioning pumped into the cell even during the winter months. After being released, Iqbal brought a suit against representatives of the Department of Justice, Bureau of Prisons, and FBI alleging 21 violations of his statutory and constitutional rights based on his treatment while confined. These defendants argued that they should be protected from the suit in their official governmental roles through qualified immunity. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York denied the defendants' motion to dismiss and rejected the qualified immunity defense.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the district court's rulings on all counts but one for violation of the right to due process. The Second Circuit noted that the actions taken by the government occurred in the immediate aftermath of September 11th and therefore created a unique context in which Iqbal's claims had to be reviewed. Even with these circumstances, however, the court felt that the qualified immunity defense could protect the government only from the due process claim. The "serious allegations of gross mistreatment" were enough to sustain the remaining counts.


1) Are governmental officers acting in their official capacities protected by the defense of qualified immunity in a claim brought by a former prison inmate, arrested in the immediate aftermath of September 11, alleging gross treatment and violations of his constitutional rights while confined?

2) Are conclusory allegations that high-ranking government officers knew of or condoned allegedly unconstitutional acts by subordinate officials sufficient to state a claim for unlawful discrimination?

Media for Ashcroft v. Iqbal

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 10, 2008 in Ashcroft v. Iqbal

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 18, 2009 in Ashcroft v. Iqbal

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kennedy has our opinion this morning in case 07-1015, Ashcroft versus Iqbal.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

This case requires as to determine if a complaint is sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss.

The respondent here, Javaid Iqbal, was the plaintiff in the District Court.

The respondent is a Pakistani and a Muslim.

Following the September 11 terrorists attack, respondent was arrested on criminal charges and detained by federal officials in a maximum security facility.

After pleading guilty to the charges against him and serving a term of imprisonment, the respondent filed a Bivens action against numerous federal officials including the two petitioners here, John Ashcroft, the former Attorney General, and Robert Mueller, the Director of the FBI.

The complaint made various allegations that our opinion discusses in considerable details, but the thrust of the complaint is that petitioners subjected respondent to harsh conditions of confinement on a count of race, religion or national origin in violation of the Fifth and First Amendments.

The complaint alleges that Ashcroft was the principal architect of the unconstitutional scheme while Mueller was instrumental in its adoption and execution.

The petitioners invoked their qualified immunity as government officials and moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that it failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

The District Court denied the motion interlocutory appeal.

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed.

Its opinion considered our recent decision in Bell Atlantic Corp. versus Twombly.

It concluded that Twombly creates a flexible plausibility standard that did not require the respondent to amplify his allegations given the facts he did allege in the complaint.

We grated certiorari, we now reverse.

Before addressing the merits of petitioners' appeal, we first hold that the Court of Appeals had subject matter jurisdiction to review the District Court's order denying petitioners' motion to dismiss.

There was no final judgment in the District Court.

But for the reason stated in the opinion, we hold that the Court of Appeals and this Court have jurisdiction to review the trial court's ruling under the collateral order doctrine.

Turning to the merits, we hold that respondent's complaint fails to plead sufficient acts to state a claim for unlawful discrimination.

In Twombly, we considered the elements of plaintiff must plead to maintain an anti-trust action and this case requires us to determine the facts of plaintiff must show in a Bivens action.

As the respondent correctly concedes there is no vicarious or imputed liability in the Bivens or a 1983 action.

That simply means that each individual defendant's liability stand or falls based on the defendant's own conduct.

The supervisor can be held to account for his or her own misconduct, but as it is conceded that there is no vicarious liability here, the supervisor cannot be held liable for a subordinate's tortious behavior.

The term supervisory liability and a context of a Bivens or 1983 action is a misnomer.

The elements necessary to demonstrate a constitutional violation will vary with the constitutional provision at issue.

But where a plaintiff is alleging discrimination in contravention of the First and Fifth Amendments are precedents established that purposeful discrimination is required to impose liability.

To survive a motion to dismiss, respondent's complaint must show the petitioners' purposefully discriminated against him on the basis of race, religion or national origin.

Respondent's complaint comes up short.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8, a complaint must contain a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.Respondent's pleading does not comply with Rule 8.

Allegation is based on the bold assertion that petitioners agreed to subject to respondent to harsh conditions solely on account of impermissible factors are mere legal conclusions that are not entitled to be assumed true.

Though his complaint does contain the well pleaded factual allegation that petitioners arrested thousands of Arab Muslim men in the wake of 9/11, except in that fact is true does not give rise to a plausible entitlement to relief.