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M. v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority

March 4, 1986

FRAZIER THEODORE M., JOHNSON, HAROLD J., RUSSELL, ESSIE, BROWN, JAMES, MILLER, THOMAS C., COOK, JAMES E. FULLARD, PATRICIA, ELLIOTT, JULIA AND WILLIAMS, ORLANDO J., INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF ALL OTHER PERSONS SIMILARLY SITUATED
v.
SOUTHEASTERN PENNSYLVANIA TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY AND TRANSPORT WORKERS UNION OF PHILADELPHIA, LOCAL #234, THEODORE M. FRAZIER, HAROLD J. JOHNSON, ESSIE RUSSELL, JAMES BROWN, THOMAS C. MILLER, JAMES E. COOK, PATRICIA FULLARD, JULIA ELLIOTT, AND ORLANDO J. WILLIAMS, APPELLANTS



C.A. No. 84-3004

Author: Adams

Before: ADAMS, SLOVITER and MANSMANN, Circuit Judges

Opinion OF THE COURT

ADAMS, Circuit Judge

This appeal raises important question concerning the application of this Circuit's requirement that civil rights plaintiffs plead specific facts in their complaints. Because we conclude that the district court misapplied the specificity doctrine in dismissing some of the counts in the complaint, although it did not err in dismissing others, we vacate and remand for further proceedings.

I.

On July 20, 1984, nine present and former employees of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) filed a class action suit alleging that SEPTA had discriminated against black employees in hiring, promotions, job assignments and disciplinary practices. The complaint also included a charge of sexual harrassment. It asserted violations of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983, 1985 (3) and 1986 (1982) as well as a state law claim. In addition to SEPTA, Transport Workers Union of Philadelphia, Local 234, was also named as a defendant. It was charged with conspiring with the employer to deprive the plaintiffs of their civil rights.

On their own initiative, the plaintiffs twice amended the complaint. The defendants challenged the second amended complaint as insufficiently specific, and on December 20, 1984, the district court agreed, directing the plaintiffs to amend their complaint to allege more facts or else face dismissal. Plaintiffs then submitted a third amended complaint, but on April 26, 1985, the district court ruled that the third amended complaint still lacked the required specificity. Declining to allow further amendments and noting that plaintiffs were represented by counsel, it dismissed the suit. Plaintiffs filed a timely appeal.*fn1

II.

Under Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a complaint must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief..." It must provide the defendant with "fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47, 2 L. Ed. 2d 80, 78 S. Ct. 99 (1957). Generally, the allegations of the complaint are to be construed favorably to the pleader; the accepted rule is that "'a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.'" Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236, 40 L. Ed. 2d 90, 94 S. Ct. 1683 (1974) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. at 45-46 (footnote omitted)).

This standard represents a significant departure from the pleading criteria in effect prior to the adoption of the federal rules in 1937. At common law, litigants faced a myriad of highly technical pleading requirements. Proponents insisted on the system's "'matchless precision,'" Note, Common Law Pleadings, 10 Harv. L. Rev. 238 (1896),. bit "[i]t also proved to be wonderfully slow, expensive, and unworkable," and "was better calculated to vindicate scientific rules of pleading than it was to dispense justice." Wright & Miller, 5 Federal Practice & procedure § 1202, at 60 (1985). The late 19th Century trend toward codification replaced common law pleading with "code pleading," which required pleadings to state the "dry, naked actual facts," Pomeroy, Code Remedies § 423, at 640 (5th ed. 1929) (quoted in Wright & Miller, supra, § 1202, at 62 n.17), as opposed to "conclusions" or "evidence." This system proved no more workable.

Abandoning such fine distinctions as well as the hypertechnicality of the common law, the federal rules established in Rule 8 a simplified standard that imposed minimal burdens on the plaintiff at the pleading stage, and allowed "great generality" in stating the basis of the pleader's claim. Wright & Miller, § 1202, at 64. Fearful of being deluged by questionable claims asserted under the civil rights acts, however, this Court in civil rights cases appears to be modifying the standard of specificity required by the federal rules when it dismisses complaints that are "broad and conclusory" and fail "to state facts in support of their conclusions." Negrich v. Hohn,, 379 F.2d 213, 215 (3d Cir. 1967). In Rotolo v. Borough of Charleroi, 532 F.2d 920, 923 (3d Cir. 1976), we declared that the specificity requirement was intended to weed out at an early stage frivolous claims and those that should be heard in state court.*fn2 Later in Hall v. Pennsylvania State Police, 570 F.2d 86, 89 (3d Cir. 1978), we supplied an additional rationale for the requirement, suggesting that it is designed to provide the defendant with sufficient notice of the claims asserted. See also United States v. City of Philadelphia, 644 F.2d 187, 204 (3d Cir. 1980).*fn3

In Rotolo, the plaintiff filed suit under section 1983 after losing his job as a borough building inspector. His complaint stated only that he had been employed by the borough, that four councilmen had voted to dismiss him, and that they had done so because he "had exercised his First Amendment privileges under the Constitution of the United States." Id. at 921. He did not allege what he had said in exercising his first amendment right, when and where he had said it, or indeed even if his claimed exercise of the First Amendment right involved speech or some other protected activity. Accordingly, we held it was "impossible to determine if indeed his activity was the sort afforded protection under the first amendment and whether it had any relevance to the termination of his employment." Id. at 923.

By way of contrast, this Court in Hall reversed a district court judgment that had dismissed a complaint based on Rotolo. A bank customer, Hall, had sued the Pennsylvania State Police, its commissioner, other state officials, and a bank. He charged that at the state's urging a directive had been issued to banks to photograph suspicious black males. We noted that "the plaintiff has alleged the conduct violating his rights (racially discriminatory activity), time (March 17, 1976), place (King of Prussia) and those responsible (various state and bank officials)." Id at 89. Thus, we said, the complaint "is sufficiently precise to give notice of the claims asserted." Id. See also Boykins v. Ambridge Area School ...


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