As I drafted today’s post, a couple of colloquialisms came to mind. First: “Shoot first and ask questions later.” Second: “Sometimes, less is more.” Federal judges are more fond of the second saying. Frequently, lawyers file complaints (the document that starts a lawsuit) in a broad manner — including all possible facts and all possible claims — without specifying which facts apply to which claims. In the legal profession, this is called “shotgun pleading.” Federal judges don’t like shotgun pleading and two of our judges in the Northern District of Alabama recently entered decisions related to shotgun pleading.
In Roney v. City of Huntsville, No. 5:18-cv-1482-CLS, 2018 WL 632483 (N.D. Ala. Dec. 4, 2018), Senior United States District Court Judge C. Lynwood Smith, Jr. provided a synopsis of the different types of shotgun pleading:
- A complaint containing multiple counts/claims, where each count adopts the allegations of preceding counts. This is a well-worn practice in Alabama, and I think it evolves from fears that a lawyer doesn’t want to accidentally omit something from a claim. So, the lawyer will start each claim in a complaint with something like: “Plaintiff incorporates all of the allegations and pleadings in the preceding paragraphs as if set forth fully herein.”
- A complaint “replete with conclusory, vague, and immaterial facts not obviously connected to any particular cause of action.”
- A complaint which fails to separate into a different count/claim each cause of action or claim for relief.
- A complaint which asserts multiple claims against multiple defendants, but fails to specify which defendants are responsible for which acts or omissions, or against which of the defendants the claim is brought.
Roney is a Title VII action in which Judge Smith granted a motion to dismiss the employee’s shotgun pleading. He concluded that the complaint fell into the first and second types. Most particularly, Judge Smith faulted conclusory pleading such as: “she was subjected to a sexually hostile work environment by her supervisor ….” Roney, 2018 WL 6326483 at *4. It appears that a better pleading would have identified the specific actions of the supervisor that amounted to a hostile work environment. While Judge Smith granted the motion to dismiss, he also gave the employee an opportunity to file a subsequent complaint that would not contain the same defects.
Judge Annemarie Carney Axon also found that the employee filed a shotgun pleading in Hawkins v. Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School, No. 2:18-cv-00638-ACA, 2018 WL 6326485 (N.D. Ala. Dec. 4, 2018). She found that the complaint filed by the employee in that Title VII case was a Type 1 and 3 shotgun pleading. Nevertheless, she continued to review the complaint and found that a partial dismissal was warranted.
Employment litigation is a specialized field and litigating in federal court requires precision. The Roney and Hawkins cases demonstrate that a lack of precision, and reliance upon a shotgun approach, can be detrimental to an employee’s case.