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Home / Expert Opinion / Workplace Issues: High Court holds complaints don’t have to cite proper legal theory

Workplace Issues: High Court holds complaints don’t have to cite proper legal theory

Lindy Korn

Lindy Korn

The Supreme Court on Nov. 10, 2014, issued a brief ruling that clarifies what the plaintiff can omit from the complaint, Johnson v. City of Shelby, 574 U.S. 2014, No. 13-1318.

Plaintiffs below worked as police officers for the City of Shelby, Mississippi. They allege that they were fired by the city’s board of aldermen, not for deficient performance, but because they brought to light criminal activities of one of the aldermen. Charging violations of their Fourteenth Amendment due process rights, they sought compensatory relief from the city. Summary judgment was entered against them in the District Court, and affirmed on appeal, for failure to invoke 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 in their complaint.

The Supreme Court summarily reversed. The federal pleading rules call for a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,” Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 8(a)(2); they do not countenance dismissal of a complaint for imperfect statement of the legal theory supporting the claim asserted. The court further reasoned, in particular, no heightened pleading rules require plaintiffs seeking damages for violations of constitutional rights to invoke Section 1983 “expressly in order to state a claim.” Imposing a heightened pleading standard in employment discrimination cases conflicts with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), Swierkiewcz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S.506, 512 2002.

The court states that here, petitioners’ complaint was not deficient in stating factual allegations sufficient to show that their claim was plausible. The court held that petitioners stated simply, concisely and directly events that they allege entitle them to damages from the city.

Having informed the city of the factual basis for their complaint, they were required to do no more to stave off threshold dismissal for want of an adequate statement of their claim.

On remand, the court accorded petitioners the opportunity to add to their complaint a citation to Section 1983 to ward off further insistence on a punctiliously stated “theory of pleadings.”

Thus, this case reaffirms that a plaintiff does not have to cite the statute governing your case. The complaint does not have to allege the proper legal theory, only the facts that entitle you to relief.

Lindy Korn practices at The Law Office of Lindy Korn and can be reached at, (716) 856-KORN (5676) or