Complaints — A Primer on Shotgun Pleading — Rules 8(a)(2) and 10(b) — Extensive Case Citations on the Four Types of Impermissible Shotgun Pleading, Including Incorporating All Prior Allegations & Counts — Defendants’ Duties
Weiland v. Palm Beach Cnty. Sheriff’s Office, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 11750 (11th Cir. July 8, 2015):
Nearly one hundred and thirty years ago, one of Georgia's greatest judges described the ideal in pleading:
Pleading is pure statement; just as much as a letter addressed to your sweetheart or your wife or your friend. The plaintiff complains that he has such a case, and he tells you what it is. The defendant says either that [*2] that is not so, or something else is so, and he makes his statement. The true rule ought to be this: the statement ought to consist precisely of what has to be [proven]. It ought not to fall short, or go beyond. If it goes beyond, it has surplusage matter that is unnecessary. Whatever is irrelevant, whatever is non-essential in statement, ought not to be in. Let the law declare that every man's pleadings shall embrace a full and clear statement of all matters of fact, which he is required to [prove], and no other.
Logan Bleckley, "Pleading," 3 Ga. Bar Assoc. Report 40, 41-42 (1886). The complaint that gave rise to this appeal does not approach that ideal, but it claims that the plaintiff has a case, and parts of it do a good enough job in telling what that case is to require the defendants to say "either that that is not so, or something else is so."
Complaints that violate either Rule 8(a)(2) or Rule 10(b), or both, are often disparagingly referred to as "shotgun pleadings." The first published opinion to discuss shotgun pleadings in any meaningful way (albeit in a dissenting footnote), described the problem with shotgun pleadings under the federal rules. See T.D.S. Inc. v. Shelby Mut. Ins. Co., 760 F.2d 1520 (11th Cir. 1985). The footnote, which began by quoting Rules 8(a)(2) and 10(b), commented:
The purpose of these rules is self-evident, to require the pleader to present his claims discretely and succinctly, so that, his adversary can discern what he is claiming and frame a responsive pleading, the court can determine which facts support which claims and whether the plaintiff has stated any claims upon which relief can be granted, and, at trial, the court can determine that evidence which is relevant and that which is not. "Shotgun" pleadings, calculated [*14] to confuse the "enemy," and the court, so that theories for relief not provided by law and which can prejudice an opponent's case, especially before the jury, can be masked, are flatly forbidden by the [spirit], if not the [letter], of these rules.
Id. at 1544 n.14 (Tjoflat, J., dissenting).8 That footnote described the complaint at issue in T.D.S. as "a paradigmatic shotgun pleading, containing a variety of contract and tort claims interwoven in a haphazard fashion." Id.
8 The last thirteen words of the quoted passage from the opinion actually say "are flatly forbidden by the letter, if not the spirit, of these rules." Because we are sure that the words "spirit" and "letter" were inadvertently transposed in the opinion, we have switched and bracketed them in our quotation of it.
T.D.S. was this Court's first shot in what was to become a thirty-year salvo of criticism aimed at shotgun pleadings, and there is no ceasefire in sight.9 Some of our shooting, which has mostly been done with nonlethal dicta, has at times been nearly as lacking in precision as the target itself. At times we have used the term "shotgun pleading" to mean little more than "poorly drafted complaint."10 In the hope that we could impose [*15] some clarity on what we have said and done about unclear complaints, we have examined more than sixty published decisions issued since the T.D.S. decision in 1985. One thing we looked for is how many types of shotgun pleadings have been used, wittingly or unwittingly, by attorneys and litigants.
9 See, e.g., Paylor v. Hartford Fire Ins. Co., 748 F.3d 1117, 1125 n.2 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing twenty-one published opinions condemning shotgun pleadings); Davis v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co., 516 F.3d 955, 979 n.54 (11th Cir. 2008) ("[S]ince 1985 we have explicitly condemned shotgun pleadings upward of fifty times."); Strategic Income Fund, L.L.C. v. Spear, Leeds & Kellogg Corp., 305 F.3d 1293, 1295 n.9 (11th Cir. 2002) ("This court has addressed the topic of shotgun pleadings on numerous occasions in the past, often at great length and always with great dismay."); see also Anderson v. Dist. Bd. of Trs. of Cent. Fla. Cmty. Coll., 77 F.3d 364, 367 (11th Cir. 1996) ("Experience teaches that, unless cases are pled clearly and precisely, issues are not joined, discovery is not controlled, the trial court's docket becomes unmanageable, the litigants suffer, and society loses confidence in the court's ability to administer justice.").
10 While plaintiffs have the responsibility of drafting complaints, defendants are not without a duty of their own in this area. We have said that a defendant faced with a shotgun pleading should "move the court, pursuant to Rule 12(e), to require the plaintiff to file a more definite statement." Anderson, 77 F.3d at 366. But we have also advised [*16] that when a defendant fails to do so, the district court ought to take the initiative to dismiss or strike the shotgun pleading and give the plaintiff an opportunity to replead. See Wagner v. First Horizon Pharm. Corp., 464 F.3d 1273, 1280 (11th Cir. 2006) ("Given the district court's proper conclusions that the complaint was a shotgun pleading and that plaintiffs' [sic] failed to connect their causes of action to the facts alleged, the proper remedy was to order repleading sua sponte."); Cramer v. Florida, 117 F.3d 1258, 1263 (11th Cir. 1997) ("[W]e note that the district court, acting on its own initiative, should have stricken [the shotgun pleading] and instructed counsel to replead their cases. . . ."). Where a plaintiff fails to make meaningful modifications to her complaint, a district court may dismiss the case under the authority of either Rule 41(b) or the court's inherent power to manage its docket. See Betty K. Agencies, 432 F.3d at 1337.
However, "a dismissal with prejudice, whether on motion or sua sponte, is an extreme sanction that may be properly imposed only when: '(1) a party engages in a clear pattern of delay or willful contempt (contumacious conduct); and (2) the district court specifically finds that lesser sanctions would not suffice.'" Id. at 1337-38 (emphasis omitted) (quoting World Thrust Films, Inc. v. Int'l Family Entm't, Inc., 41 F.3d 1454, 1456 (11th Cir. 1995).
Though the groupings cannot be too finely drawn, we have identified [*17] four rough types or categories of shotgun pleadings. The most common type -- by a long shot -- is a complaint containing multiple counts where each count adopts the allegations of all preceding counts, causing each successive count to carry all that came before and the last count to be a combination of the entire complaint.11 The next most common type, at least as far as our published opinions on the subject reflect, is a complaint that does not commit the mortal sin of re-alleging all preceding counts but is guilty of the venial sin of being replete with conclusory, vague, and immaterial facts not obviously connected to any particular cause of action.12 The third type of shotgun pleading is one that commits the sin of not separating into a different count each cause of action or claim for relief.13 Fourth, and finally, there is the relatively rare sin of asserting multiple claims against multiple defendants without specifying which defendant(s) are responsible for which acts or omissions, or which of the defendant(s) the claim is brought against.14 The unifying characteristic [*18] of all types of shotgun pleadings is that they fail to one degree or another, and in one way or another, to give the defendants adequate notice of the claims against them and the grounds upon which each claim rests.15
11 See, e.g., Keith v. DeKalb Cnty., 749 F.3d 1034, 1045 n.39 (11th Cir. 2014) ("The complaint, through its incorporation into successive counts all preceding allegations and counts, is a quintessential 'shotgun' pleading. . . ."); Paylor, 748 F.3d at 1126 (stating that a shotgun pleading occurs where each count adopts the allegations of all preceding counts); Thompson v. RelationServe Media, Inc., 610 F.3d 628, 650 n.22 (11th Cir. 2010) (Tjoflat, J., concurring in the appeal, No. 07-13225, and dissenting in the cross-appeal, No. 07-13477) (finding "a typical 'shotgun' pleading" where "each count incorporated by reference all preceding paragraphs and counts of the complaint notwithstanding that many of the facts alleged were not material to the claim, or cause of action, appearing in a count's heading"); PVC Windoors, Inc. v. Babbitbay Beach Constr., N.V., 598 F.3d 802, 806 & n.4 (11th Cir. 2010) (finding a "typical shotgun pleading" where the last of a complaint's ten counts "amounts to an amalgamation of all counts"); Weissman v. Nat'l Ass'n of Sec. Dealers, Inc., 500 F.3d 1293, 1311 (11th Cir. 2007) (en banc) (Tjoflat, J., dissenting) (stating that the practice of incorporating each count's allegations into successive counts is the "cardinal sin of 'shotgun' pleading"); United States ex rel. Atkins v. McInteer, 470 F.3d 1350, 1354 n.6 (11th Cir. 2006) (finding that the complaint was a "typical [*19] shotgun pleading" where each count incorporated all previous allegations); Wagner, 464 F.3d at 1279 ("Shotgun pleadings are those that incorporate every antecedent allegation by reference into each subsequent claim for relief or affirmative defense."); Daewoo Motor Am., Inc. v. Gen. Motors Corp., 459 F.3d 1249, 1264 n.7 (11th Cir. 2006) (Tjoflat, J., specially concurring) (finding that the complaint was "a typical 'shotgun pleading' containing multiple counts, each incorporating by reference all the (usually irrelevant) allegations of previous counts. . . ."); SEC v. Diversified Corporate Consulting Grp., 378 F.3d 1219, 1221 n.2 (11th Cir. 2004) ("[Plaintiff's] complaint is a typical shotgun pleading in that each count incorporates by reference every allegation preceding it.") (citation omitted); Ambrosia Coal & Constr. Co. v. Pagés Morales, 368 F.3d 1320, 1330 n.22 (11th Cir. 2004) (finding a shotgun pleading where "[m]any [counts] adopt the material allegations of the preceding counts or paragraphs such that some counts appear to state more than one cause of action"); Lumley v. City of Dade City, 327 F.3d 1186, 1192 & n.13 (11th Cir. 2003) (finding a shotgun pleading where "[e]ach count incorporates by reference the allegations of the preceding counts and thus includes allegations that are irrelevant to the cause(s) of action the count ostensibly states"); Strategic Income Fund, 305 F.3d at 1295 ("The typical shotgun complaint contains several counts, each one incorporating by reference the allegations of its predecessors, leading to a situation where most of the counts (i.e., [*20] all but the first) contain irrelevant factual allegations and legal conclusions."); Sikes v. Teleline, Inc., 281 F.3d 1350, 1356 n.9 (11th Cir. 2002) ("We note that the plaintiffs' complaint is yet another example of what we have often criticized as 'shotgun pleadings,' where each count 'incorporates' all of the preceding paragraphs and counts."), abrogated on other grounds by Bridge v. Phoenix Bond & Indem. Co., 553 U.S. 639, 646, 661, 128 S. Ct. 2131, 2137, 2145 (2008); Magluta v. Samples, 256 F.3d 1282, 1284 (11th Cir. 2001) ("Each count incorporates by reference the allegations made in a section entitled 'General Factual Allegations' -- which comprises 146 numbered paragraphs -- while also incorporating the allegations of any count or counts that precede it."); Moore v. Am. Fed'n of Television & Radio Artists, 216 F.3d 1236, 1240 (11th Cir. 2000) (dubbing the complaint a shotgun pleading because it was "96 pages long with 232 numbered paragraphs; [and] each count incorporate[d] by reference all previous paragraphs"); BMC Indus., Inc. v. Barth Indus., Inc., 160 F.3d 1322, 1326 n.6 (11th Cir. 1998) (describing as "a quintessential example" of a shotgun pleading a complaint in which each successive count incorporated by reference both the factual and legal allegations of the previous counts); Thornton v. City of Macon, 132 F.3d 1395, 1396 n.1 (11th Cir. 1998) (describing as a "quintessential shotgun pleading" a two count complaint where the second count "incorporated all of the preceding allegations of the complaint, including those of Count One"); Johnson v. City of Fort Lauderdale, 126 F.3d 1372, 1376 n.4 (11th Cir. 1997) (finding that a complaint was a shotgun pleading where "each of the complaint's nine counts [*21] incorporates all of the factual allegations of earlier counts"); Anderson, 77 F.3d at 366 (describing a complaint as a shotgun pleading where "each count also adopts the allegations of all preceding counts").
12 See, e.g., Chudasama v. Mazda Motor Corp., 123 F.3d 1353, 1359 n.9 (11th Cir. 1997) (finding a shotgun pleading where "a reader of the complaint must speculate as to which factual allegations pertain to which count"); Cramer, 117 F.3d at 1261 (describing the complaint at issue as "a rambling 'shotgun' pleading that is so disorganized and ambiguous that it is almost impossible to discern precisely what it is that these appellants are claiming"); Ebrahimi v. City of Huntsville Bd. of Educ., 114 F.3d 162, 164 (11th Cir. 1997) (describing a complaint that "offered vague and conclusory factual allegations in an effort to support a multiplicity of discrimination claims leveled against 15 defendants" as a "prototypical 'shotgun complaint'"); Anderson, 77 F.3d at 366 (complaint was "perfect example of 'shotgun' pleading in that it [was] virtually impossible to know which allegations of fact [were] intended to support which claim(s) for relief") (citation omitted); Tamiami Partners, Ltd. v. Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Fla., 63 F.3d 1030, 1046 n.51 (11th Cir. 1995) (characterizing the complaint at issue as "a quintessential shotgun pleading, replete with vague and cursory allegations"); Pelletier v. Zweifel, 921 F.2d 1465, 1518 (11th Cir. 1991) ("[Plaintiff's complaints] are quintessential 'shotgun' pleadings, replete with factual allegations that could not possibly [*22] be material to any of the causes of actions they assert.").
13 See, e.g., Davis, 516 F.3d at 979-80 (describing a complaint with "untold causes of action, all bunched together in one count" as "a model 'shotgun' pleading"); Bickerstaff Clay Prods. Co. v. Harris Cnty., 89 F.3d 1481, 1485 n.4 (11th Cir. 1996) ("The complaint is a typical shotgun pleading, in that some of the counts present more than one discrete claim for relief."); Cesnik v. Edgewood Baptist Church, 88 F.3d 902, 905 (11th Cir. 1996) (characterizing as a shotgun pleading a complaint that "was framed in complete disregard of the principle that separate, discrete causes of action should be plead in separate counts"); Novak v. Cobb Cnty. Kennestone Hosp. Auth., 74 F.3d 1173, 1175 & n.5 (11th Cir. 1996) (referring to a complaint that pleaded multiple causes of action in a single count as "a quintessential 'shotgun pleading'"); Cole v. United States, 846 F.2d 1290, 1293 (11th Cir. 1988) (labeling as a shotgun pleading a complaint that set forth, in one count, "every act, [regardless of which defendant committed the act], which, in the pleader's mind, may have had a causal relationship to the [injury]"). We have indicated that this type of shotgun pleading likely runs afoul of Rule 10(b). See Anderson, 77 F.3d at 366 (finding that failure to "present each claim for relief in a separate count, as required by Rule 10(b)," constitutes shotgun pleading).
14 See, e.g., Magluta, 256 F.3d at 1284 ("The complaint is replete with allegations that 'the defendants' engaged in certain conduct, making no distinction among the fourteen defendants charged, though geographic and temporal realities make plain that all of the defendants could not [*23] have participated in every act complained of."); Ebrahimi, 114 F.3d at 164 (describing a complaint that "offered vague and conclusory factual allegations in an effort to support a multiplicity of discrimination claims leveled against 15 defendants" as a "prototypical 'shotgun complaint'"). But see Kyle K. v. Chapman, 208 F.3d 940, 944 (11th Cir. 2000) ("The fact that defendants are accused collectively does not render the complaint deficient. The complaint can be fairly read to aver that all defendants are responsible for the alleged conduct.").
15 See Sledge v. Goodyear Dunlop Tires N. Am., Ltd., 275 F.3d 1014, 1018 n.8 (11th Cir. 2001) ("The failure of the plaintiff to identify his claims with sufficient clarity to enable the defendant to frame a [responsive] pleading constitutes shotgun pleading."); see also Boatman v. Town of Oakland, Fla., 76 F.3d 341, 343 n.6 (11th Cir. 1996) (characterizing as a "'shotgun' pleading" a complaint that failed to place a defendant on notice of what the claim was and the grounds upon which it rested).
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