On November 10, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court entered a per curiam order in Johnson v. City of Shelby, Mississippi, reversing the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ opinion affirming the dismissal of a suit against a Mississippi municipality because the complaint did not include a claim under Section 1983. The City of Shelby police force terminated officers Johnson and a colleague for allegedly violating a city resident’s rights and other procedural requirements. The two officers claimed that they we actually fired for refusing to ignore a City alderman’s illegal activities. The complaint claimed the City had violated their Fourteenth Amendment due process rights and maliciously interfered with their employment in violation of state law.
The City filed a motion for summary judgment based on the fact that the complaint did not include a Section 1983 claim—the federal statute designed to impose liability on state actors for violation of an individual’s constitutional rights. The trial court agreed and dismissed the officers’ claims. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision, finding that failing to include such a claim was “fatally defective” to the complaint.
In a brief opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with the Fifth Circuit and reversed. The Justices specifically said that federal pleading rules do not require dismissal of a complaint for an “imperfect statement of the legal theory supporting the claim asserted.” The Court distinguished several of its other rulings that set out requirements for a complaint’s factual allegations. The opinion notes that the police officers’ complaint contained adequate facts to put the City on notice of the type of claim. The Court ultimately held that dismissal for failing to include the specific statute under which the claim was being brought was not proper.
The Fifth Circuit has consistently upheld dismissal of complaints that failed to plead a 1983 cause of action. The Supreme Court’s opinion changes this practice and possibly opens the door for survival of other complaints that do not adequately describe the specific legal theories. It will be interesting to see whether claimants attempt to press the Court’s apparent distinction between properly plead facts and properly plead legal theories in a Complaint.