What’s a “shotgun pleading”? Welcome to the 11th Circuit.

by Trey Ross, M.Ed., Esq.

Confused

Photo by Alexander Dummer on Pexels.com

Question:

I filed a complaint. It was a typical complaint that you’d see in any court in the country. However, Defendant’s counsel has alleged that my complaint is a shotgun pleading and it should be dismissed. I’ve never heard of such a thing. What is a shotgun pleading?

Brief Answer:

First, humbly remind Defendant’s counsel that the appropriate remedy would be a Rule 12(e) motion for a more definite statement rather than a dismissal. [1]

Second, in terms of complaints, a shotgun pleading is a complaint which does not give the Defendant proper notice of the charges against him. To put it another way, the complaint is confusing because you’ve probably cited to irrelevant facts/paragraphs at the start of each numerated count.

So, if you’re being accused of filing a shotgun pleading, you may need to revise your complaint so that each count only contains–and only cites to–facts which are relevant to the specific count. In other words: As a general rule, don’t say “Plaintiff incorporates all proceeding paragraphs” at the start of each count unless all proceeding paragraphs are actually relevant to proving liability for that specific count. Otherwise, the counts at the end of the complaint will contain information which is not relevant to prove Defendant liable for the later counts–even though some of the information was relevant to prove Defendant’s liability for the earlier counts.

In summary, instead of saying “Plaintiff incorporates all proceeding paragraphs” at the start of each count, simply (1) begin each count by citing the specific facts and/or paragraphs which establish liability for that specific count, or (2)  list the relevant facts necessary to establish liability underneath the count without citing to any previously mentioned facts/paragraphs.

Following this rule of thumb will keep you out of a lot of trouble in the courts of the 11th Circuit. However, as you’ll see in the complaints and orders below, exceptions have been permitted.

I. Shotgun Pleadings Explained

This article focuses on shotgun pleadings as they are defined by the 11th Circuit since this circuit can be considered the epicenter of the shotgun pleading doctrine. The 11th Circuit has approximately 2,224 published opinions on the topic of shotgun pleadings. By comparison, the number of shotgun pleading opinions in the 11th Circuit is 1,423% greater than its second-place runner-up (i.e., the 9th Circuit).

The 11th Circuit’s Court of Appeals provides that “[s]hotgun pleadings ‘contain[] several counts, each one incorporating by reference the allegations of its predecessors, leading to a situation where most of the counts (i.e., all but the first) contain irrelevant factual allegations and conclusions.” See e.g., Strategic Income Fund, LLC v. Spear, Leeds & Kellogg Corp., 305 F.3d 1293, 1295 (11th Cir. 2002). As a result, ‘“[a] shotgun pleading’…[is] one in which ‘it is virtually impossible to know which allegations of fact are intended to support which claims for relief…[and thus] does not comply with the standards of Rule [] 8[.]’” Kabbaj v. Obama, 568 Fed.Appx. 875, 879 (11th Cir. 2014). According to the 11th Circuit, shotgun pleadings run afoul of Rules 8 and 10 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requirement that a plaintiff present a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief” and if possible, articulate each claim in a separate count. Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2); Fed. R. Civ. P. 10(b); see also See Fikes v. City of Daphne, 79 F.3d 1079, 1082-83 (11th Cir. 1996) (quoting T.D.S. v. Shelby Mut. Ins. Co., 760 F.2d 1520, 1543 n.14 (11th Cir. 1985) (Tjoflat, J., dissenting)).

While the Court’s descriptions are helpful, a review of the complaints which have passed and failed a shotgun pleading challenge demonstrates that there are exceptions to the rule. Thus, you’ll need to see some actual complaints to get a feel for what a shotgun pleading actually looks like. Otherwise, it will be difficult to determine whether your complaint has “sinned” in the eyes of the 11th Circuit or whether Defendant’s counsel is just blowing smoke to stall your case.

II. Examples of what not to do…and some exceptions to the rule

Here are some complaints which illustrate what not to do:

  1. Paylor v. Hartfor Fire (Amended Complaint), Case No. 6:11-cv-00059-PCF-TBS (11th Cir. 2014)
  2. Cook v. Randolph County AMENDED complaint, Case No. 4:08-cv-131-CDL (11th 2009)
  3. Davis v. JPMorgan – Complaint by pro se plaintiff, Case No. 1:12-cv-04126-AT (11th 2012).
  4. Saldivar v. FRESENIUS Complaint, Case No. 1:10-cv-01614-AT (11th 2013)

     However, here are some complaints which appear to have broken the 11th Circuit’s rule yet survived their shotgun pleading challenge–at least at the district court level. The Judge’s explanation is provided here as well:

  1. Purvis v. Atlanta – Amended Complaint 1, Case No. 1:14-cv-03701-AT (11th 2014)
    • Click here to see the Judge’s Order which explains why the Purvis complaint is not a shotgun pleading
  2. In re Friedmans Complaint, Case No. 1:03-cv-03475-WSD (11th 2004)
    • Click here to see the Judge’s Order which explains why this complaint is not a shotgun pleading
    • By the way, this complaint is also a massive 213 pages long.  
  3. Stevenson v. CRRC Complaint, Case No. 6:16-cv-00129-RBD-DAB (11th 2016)
    • Click here to see the Judge’s Order which explains why the Stevenson complaint is not a shotgun pleading

Note: I repeat that the above-mentioned exceptions were discussed by district court judges and not the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

III. Summary

If you’re new to the 11th Circuit, welcome to the world of shotgun pleadings. Defense counsel in this circuit have filed thousands of motions accusing complaints of being confusing and failing to give Defendants proper notice of charges. So, to be safe, you’ll need to draft complaints in which the counts only contain—and cite to—facts necessary to support each charge.

Although the shotgun pleading doctrine has given defense counsel a powerful tool—one which is subject to abuse by disingenuous advocates who would like to stall Plaintiff’s case—the 11th Circuit’s demand for precision within pleadings likely reflects the future of litigation.

Note: If you still need more examples of what to do when drafting your pleadings, check out some of the charging documents written by leading trial lawyers such as Robert Mueller, Special Counsel for the United States Department of Justice.

[1]  Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544 , 590 (2007) (providing “[t]he remedy for an allegation lacking sufficient specificity to provide adequate notice is, of course, a Rule 12(e) motion for a more definite statement”).

cropped-brighterline-concept-1-large-in-jpg-2-e1557535280266-1.jpg