One of the things that drives people crazy is how easy it is to file a lawsuit, and conversely how difficult it is to persuade a judge to dismiss a lawsuit before the defendant incurs the costs of discovery and summary judgment. It has long been the law in Massachusetts that a complaint should not be dismissed “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.” Nader v. Citron, 372 Mass. 96 (1977). This is a very difficult (some would say metaphysical) standard. Under it dismissal has been limited to black and white situations where the plaintiff has failed to allege the basic elements of a cause of action, or where (for example) a statute of limitations defense is apparent on the face of the complaint.
No more. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court rejected this standard in the federal court (Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly), holding that a complaint (the document that initiates a lawsuit) must assert a claim to relief that is “plausible on its face.” The complaint must allege facts plausibly suggesting a right to relief. Vague assertions intended to satisfy the “no set of facts” standard will no longer suffice.
The Massachusetts state courts often follow the federal courts when it comes to matters of procedure, and in June the Supreme Judicial Court expressly adopted the Twombly standard in Iannachino v. Ford Motor Company (“we take the opportunity to adopt the refinement of that standard that was recently articulated by the United States Supreme Court in . . . Twombly“).
Of course, the devil is in the details when it comes to how specific, detailed and complete a set of facts must be to plausibly suggest a particular plaintiff’s right to relief. The lower federal courts are struggling to apply the Twombly standard in various contexts, and I expect a similar process to take place in the state courts in the coming years. One thing is certain, however – filing a complaint in state court has just gotten more difficult, and the chances of obtaining early dismissal has improved for defendants.