Alright, it’s a lawyer’s case, but it’s an important one for employers defending class actions.
As we have written before in this blog, the Supreme Court made clear in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), that a complaint cannot parrot the elements of a claim but must make specific factual allegations regarding the actions the plaintiffs seek to challenge. Since that decision, several courts have rejected “bare bones” class action complaints because they do not meet the Twombly/Iqbal standards.
In response, some plaintiffs have tried to strike defenses from the defendant’s answer on the grounds that they do not meet those standards. While these arguments may have a certain “tit for tat” feel, an answer is not the same as a complaint in that the plaintiff is the one to frame the dispute, and the defendant is not in the same position at the outset of the case to spell out its defenses in detail. Further, in the case of a class action, it has no meaningful way to spell out the facts that relate to each individual class member and may very well intend to argue that each claim is different. Thus, answering to Twombly/Iqbal standards would become a monumental tasks that would convert the preparation of an answer to a years-long process.
Most courts seem to reject the application of Twombly and Iqbal at this stage, and a recent case reflects such a rejection in the class action context. In Dudley v. Regions Financial Corp.pdf., Case No. 1:11-CV-2700-RLV (N.D. Ga. Jan. 26, 2011), the plaintiff sought to pursue a collective action under the FLSA. She moved the court to dismiss several of the defendant’s 18 or more affirmative defenses (such as “accord and satisfaction”, “arbitration”, or “mitigation of damages”) under the Twombly/Iqbal standards.
The district court denied the motion. It found as a preliminary matter that the decisions in Twombly and Iqbal did not apply to answers. It found independently that the plaintiff’s arguments were premature given the lack of discovery at that stage of the case and the level of detail already provided by the defendant. Although it ultimately urged the defendant to drop those defenses it did not intend to pursue, the court found that the defenses were adequately pleaded.
The Bottom Line: The Twombly/Iqbal pleading standards should not apply to answers in class action cases.