Tackling the most important topics of law school, Part 8: Rule 12(b)(6)’s “failure to state a claim”

September 19, 2013

Law School 101a

(Editor’s note: Over the next ten weeks, we’ll be covering some of the most prominent legal concepts taught in law school to help students faced with these topics, whether for the first time or as part of a review, better comprehend them.)

Although we’ve done seven topics so far in this series, we haven’t yet covered a topic in one of the earliest subjects covered in law school, civil procedure.

Today, that changes, and we’ll be covering one of the most important topics in the subject: Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 12(b)(6).

FRCP Rule 12(b) pertains to pretrial motions, and 12(b)(6) specifically deals with motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

As a practical matter, Rule 12(b)(6) motions are rarely successful, and when they are, their success usually has more to do with the judge than the law.  Nevertheless, they appear regularly in law school civil procedure exams (and bar exam civil procedure questions), so it’s important to be aware of them.

“Failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted” can mean a number of things, all of which have to do with what is stated in a complaint.

First, and most typically, this means that the complaint failed to properly allege one or more of the required elements of an action.

Here’s what I mean by this:

Suppose someone files a complaint for negligence.  In that complaint, the plaintiff must allege all of the elements of negligence, and the elements must be applied to the defendant or defendants.

For example, in the above negligence lawsuit, let’s say that the defendant hit the plaintiff with his car.   The plaintiff would have to allege all of the elements of negligence and apply them to the defendant, such as the following:

  1. Defendant owed to Plaintiff a duty of care.
  2. Defendant breached that duty of care.
  3. Plaintiff suffered injuries.
  4. These injuries were the result of Defendant’s breach of duty.

As mentioned earlier, Rule 12(b)(6) motions are rarely successful, in no small part because pleading requirements are generally quite liberal.  In spite of these lax requirements, however, the above pleading example would be insufficient to defeat a 12(b)(6) motion.

The pleading is insufficient because all it does is, in court parlance, “merely recite bare legal conclusions.”

The complaint must do much more than this; specifically, a factual basis for the claim must be established by the complaint.

Using the same example as above, the complaint must also include details about how the defendant was negligent, and how this negligence caused the plaintiff’s injuries.

Perhaps the defendant ran a red light and collided with the plaintiff’s vehicle or the plaintiff herself.  Perhaps the collision caused the plaintiff to break her leg or worse.  Complaints must contain factual allegations such as these to be considered as having “stated a claim upon which relief can be granted.”

Further, the more factual detail that can be included in the complaint, the better.  One reason for this is to ensure that you have sufficiently pleaded the elements of the causes of action listed in your complaint.  Another reason – and an important one at that – is the standard that is used to review 12(b)(6) motions.  Specifically, when deciding such a motion, the court assumes all factual allegations contained in the complaint to be true, giving the plaintiff the full benefit of the doubt.

Recognizing this, it is vital to include every fact that could in any way be relevant to give the court as complete a picture as possible.

Even if you have perfectly pleaded the elements of a given cause of action and included a complete and detailed set of facts, the Rule 12(b)(6) motion could succeed nonetheless.  Although less commonly the reason for the success of such a motion, the court could decide that the pleaded cause of action isn’t recognized by the law.

Using our car accident example, if the plaintiff claimed assault and battery instead of negligence, but all of the facts remained the same (i.e. the car accident truly was an accident and there was no intent to cause injury to the plaintiff), then the 12(b)(6) motion, at least in regards to the assault and battery claims, would succeed.

Practically speaking, the judge would usually give the plaintiff leave to amend if a legal cause of action was apparent from the facts, but the 12(b)(6) motion would still technically be successful.

And that’s pretty much the basics of FRCP Rule 12(b)(6).

If you have any specific questions, feel free to post them in the comments below!