In Stevenson v. City of Seat Pleasant, Maryland, No. 12-2047 (4th Cir. Feb. 21, 2014), the Fourth Circuit spent some time cleaning up a rather messy case involving the alleged use of excessive force by members of a police department. Even the District Court described the case as having a “rather long and tortured factual history.” When the record arrived at the Fourth Circuit, the appeal covered a number of summary judgment motions, trial rulings and post-trial motions. One of the primary issues on appeal was whether the District Court had erred during the trial by reversing its pretrial ruling that plaintiffs had failed to sufficiently plead a claim of “bystander liability.”
The Fourth Circuit recognized that a complaint must satisfy the Supreme Court’s plausibility pleading framework set forth in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009) and Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). But both of those cases dealt with whether the complaint contained sufficient factual detail. In the case before the Fourth Circuit, the question was whether the complaint put the defendants on notice that plaintiffs were pursuing a claim of bystander liability.
The Court rejected the notion that the plaintiffs were required “to use any precise or magical words [such as “bystander liability”] in their pleading.” The Court explained that other circuits “have reached the same conclusion regarding whether precise or specific words must be present to sufficiently state a cause of action.”
The Court also rejected defendants’ argument that they were not put on notice of plaintiffs’ bystander liability claim because plaintiffs never asserted the theory in their discovery responses. In the Court’s opinion, the defendants “simply did not ask the correct questions.” And, in any event, the Court explained that discovery is an exercise in fact-finding, while it is the complaint that provides “fair notice” of a plaintiff’s legal theories. The question, then, was whether “the plain language of the complaint sufficiently state[d] a cause of action,” which the Court, like the District Court, answered in the affirmative.
Separately, the Court examined the District Court’s summary judgment ruling and concluded that, even if one of the plaintiff’s affidavits was not actually a “sham,” it nevertheless could not take the plaintiff past summary judgment because it conflicted with the plaintiff’s deposition testimony. The Court quoted its opinion in Barwick v. Celotex, 736 F.2d 946, 960 (4th Circ. 1984) that “[a] genuine issue of material fact is not created where the only issue of fact is to determine which of the two conflicting versions of the plaintiff’s testimony is correct.”
Practice Tips: (1) In the Fourth Circuit liberal notice pleading remains alive and well, at least with respect to the specificity with which plaintiff is required to label its legal claims—so proceed accordingly; and (2) clients can kill their cases in deposition and so you must prepare as though the deposition is a dispositive event in the case.