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11th Circuit Clarifies How Not to Write a Shotgun Complaint

See what sticks
By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on February 08, 2021 4:43 PM

No one wants their lawsuit to be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. But throwing facts and defendants up in the air in the hope and prayer that something – anything – will move the case forward can get your case dismissed just as quickly. Known as “shotgun complaints" in the 11th Circuit, rules 8(a)(2) and Rule 10(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure prohibit these scattershot approaches to lawsuits, at least in spirit.

There are four types of shotgun pleadings the Eleventh Circuit has identified:

  • Adopting the allegations of all preceding counts, meaning the last count is a combination of the entire complaint.
  • Using conclusory, vague, and immaterial facts in the counts
  • Failing to separate each cause of action or claim for relief into a different count
  • Asserting multiple claims against multiple defendants without specifying which of the defendants are responsible for which acts or omissions

An 11th Circuit panel reminded attorneys that courts are not fond of any of these tactics in a recent opinion, writing that the 11th Circuit has “little tolerance" for shotgun pleadings.

Irrelevant Details Need Not Apply

The court said that a recent complaint was “rife with immaterial factual allegations, including five pages and 24 paragraphs of irrelevant details about the alleged criminal backgrounds of some of the defendants." The plaintiff in the case, who was alleging fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, and other violations of state and federal law, was given leave to amend his original complaint. However, the district court tossed out the amended complaint as well when it received more of the same.

Which is just what the district court should have done, the 11th Circuit panel held. The amended complaint still named 16 defendants, numbered 92 pages and 440 paragraphs, and alleged 19 counts against the defendants. And many of these named defendants would have a hard time understanding just what the complaint alleges they did to violate Florida law. “If [the plaintiff] himself cannot offer a coherent explanation . . . we cannot expect the defendants to do it for him by digging through 50 pages and 249 numbered paragraphs of scattershot factual allegations," Chief Judge William Pryor wrote for the unanimous panel.

Some Free Advice

Circuit Judge Gerald Tjoflat wrote separately to say he was not mad, just disappointed in plaintiff's lawyers generally, and gave some free advice on how not to get your case dismissed. While historically some lawyers have used shotgun complaints as a way to confuse the opposing party and the courts, Judge Tjoflat argued that increasingly courts are coming across shotgun complaints that are simply “poorly written."

While Twombly and Iqbal require that a complaint include more than just a threadbare allegation, the court still has scarce resources, Judge Tjoflat explained, and judges have “neither the manpower nor the time to sift through a morass of irrelevant facts in order to piece together claims for plaintiff's counsel." Judge Tjoflat went far back to quote Abraham Lincoln: “In law, it is a good policy never to plead what you need not, lest you oblige yourself to prove what you cannot."

Judge Tjoflat also exhorted both district courts and defense counsel to “nip shotgun complaints in the bud" to avoid overburdening the courts. And never, never respond to a shotgun complaint in kind, Judge Tjoflat admonished. He finished with the “hope that this opinion will serve as a guide for lawyers who truly seek to vindicate their client's rights—and avoid unfortunate outcomes for their clients—by filing clear, precise pleadings."

Consider ourselves duly warned.

Related Resources

Submitting an Amicus Brief? Judge Michael Scudder of the Seventh Circuit Has Some Tips. (FindLaw's U.S. Seventh Circuit)

Why Engaging Prose Matters In Persuasive Legal Writing (FindLaw's Strategist)

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