Category: Civil Procedure


A Taxonomy of Litigation II: Eight Typical Clusters of Causes of Action

As I explored in a previous post, some terrific co-authors and I have written a paper which taxonomizes federal complaints- that is, we find patterns in the kinds of causes of action that attorneys plead.  In this post, I’m going to explore those patterns in some more detail.

In our data, spectral clustering revealed eight clusters of causes of action.  Each grouping organizes together causes of action that are more likely to be pled together than they are to be pled with others.  (This eight-cluster finding is probably not generalizable to all litigation – the paper goes into some detail about the kinds of cases that we included and excluded from our dataset.)  When you think about it, that there will be some patterns from this kind of exercise is obvious — there are only a limited number of legally cognizable fact patterns that can cause injury, and attorneys often follow form books/precedent when pleading.  Still, we didn’t know what the patterns would be before completing the analysis.

The Figure below provides the most common two or three causes of action per cluster:

This illustrates how, for example, intellectual property claims (like trademark infringement) often travel together with consumer protection claims; civil rights claims (like 1983 allegations) accompany state law torts; and tort claims often fit with contract and fraud claims. This should be old news to anyone who has ever practiced law.  Moreover, the Figure doesn’t give us a good handle on how alike or unlike each pattern is from another.  Follow me after the jump for the Figure that tries to accomplish just that.

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Kovarsky on Martinez and the Roberts Post-Conviction Project

Lucky for us, my brilliant colleague Lee Kovarsky took some time out of his whirlwind schedule to help walk us through the Supreme Court’s post-conviction decision in Martinez v. Ryan.  I’ve blogged about Professor Kovarsky before–he is an expert on habeas corpus whose newest work, entitled “A Constitutional Theory of Habeas Power,” will be published by the Virginia Law Review.  He is also amidst writing a textbook  for Foundation Press entitled “Federal Habeas Corpus: Executive Detention and Post-Conviction Litigation” (forthcoming 2013) (with Brandon Garrett).  Professor Kovarsky recently argued a habeas case before the Fifth Circuit and helped write the ABA Amicus Brief in Martinez.

Martinez and the Roberts Post-Conviction Project*

I. Overview

Almost under the radar, the Roberts Court has reconfigured the way this country conducts post-conviction review. Years from now, we may consider a case decided this Tuesday, Martinez v. Ryan, a seminal entry in that shift. Perhaps Martinez was reported so sparingly because it was so complicated, but its complexity shouldn’t obscure its importance. (Stephen Vladeck has a characteristically insightful explanation of Martinez up on SCOTUSBLOG.)

The “Roberts Post-Conviction Project” has two moving parts. First, the Project involves a series of decisions promoting state collateral review as the “main event” for post-conviction challenges. Second, and at the same time, the Project has generated incentives for states to provide more process and better lawyers in those proceedings. The Project is hardly a return to thick, Warren-era habeas review of state criminal procedure, but it does slightly moderate one rhetorical excess of Rehnquist post-conviction jurisprudence—the proposition that state judges are always as good as their federal counterparts at enforcing federal constitutional rights.

Criminal process for convicted state prisoners subdivides roughly into the following phases: (1) direct appellate review of the conviction; (2) a state post-conviction disposition subject to state appellate review; and (3) a federal habeas proceeding with federal appeals. For decades, Congress and the Supreme Court have been recalibrating federal habeas review to defer to state post-conviction outcomes. Most recently, in Cullen v. Pinholster (2011), the Supreme Court held that (generally) federal habeas relief could issue only on evidence presented to a state post-conviction court.

The problem is that, for decades, state post-conviction review—the first place that a prisoner may assert many important constitutional challenges to a conviction—has been a legal swamp of vague rules, spotty process, and substandard representation. Many prisoners litigate state post-conviction claims pro se, and many counseled prisoners enjoy no constitutional entitlement to competent representation. Even for strong constitutional claims, forfeiture often follows a state prisoner’s failure to successfully navigate unthinkably complex state post-conviction law either (1) without representation or (2) with a bad lawyer that the state underpays.

And federal habeas law imposes all sorts of severe penalties when state post-conviction representation goes predictably awry. For instance, the federal limitations statute was—until recently—unforgiving about lost portions of the limitations period attributable to even the most appalling state post-conviction representation. Moreover, at least pre-Martinez, when incompetent state post-conviction representation forfeited a claim on a state procedural ground, that claim would be inexcusably defaulted on federal habeas review.

The Court heard Martinez v. Ryan on October 4, 2011. Twenty-four State Attorneys General signed an Amicus Brief in support of Arizona, as did the United States. By mid-March 2012, the Court had still failed to announce a decision. It was clear that something serious was happening, but nobody had a good sense of what that something was. As it turns out, the prisoner won pretty big. Although the opinion stopped short of announcing a constitutional right to a state post-conviction attorney, its decision will nonetheless improve the representation provided at that phase of criminal process.

Kennedy wrote, and was joined by Roberts, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan. (Scalia and Thomas dissented.) The head count is a pleasant surprise for those who remain skeptical that Roberts and Alito are willing to break meaningfully from Scalia and Thomas on the harsh application of procedural rules on federal habeas review. Read More


Stanford Law Review, 64.2 (2012)

Stanford Law Review

Volume 64 • Issue 2 • February 2012

National Security Federalism in the Age of Terror
Matthew C. Waxman
64 Stan. L. Rev. 289

Incriminating Thoughts
Nita A. Farahany
64 Stan. L. Rev. 351

Elective Shareholder Liability
Peter Conti-Brown
64 Stan. L. Rev. 409

Harrington’s Wake:
Unanswered Questions on AEDPA’s Application to Summary Dispositions

Matthew Seligman
64 Stan. L. Rev. 469

Boumediene Applied Badly:
The Extraterritorial Constitution After Al Maqaleh v. Gates

Saurav Ghosh
64 Stan. L. Rev. 507


A Nice Test of the Calder “Exception” to McIntyre v. Nicastro

In last year’s McIntyre v. Nicastro, Justice Kennedy, writing for four Justices, emphasized that personal jurisdiction rested on purposeful availment of the forum state.  But, he quickly qualified, “in some cases, as with an intentional tort, the defendant might well fall within the State’s authority by reason of his attempt to obstruct its laws.” As many have noted, this leaves the Calder v. Jones libel jurisdiction line of cases up in the air.  Do they remain good law?  Would it matter if the libel happened only over the ‘net?

I guess we’ll see. Read the complaint in O’Keefe v. Current Media.  It’s a good example of what’s coming — a news report delivered mostly on the web, which happened to reach New Jersey, where the plaintiff now seeks redress in State Court for libel.  Does New Jersey have jurisdiction over Current Media, Keith Olberman, and David Shuster?  Only Justices Breyer and Alito know.



Sometimes, opening sentences tell you exactly what you need to know about what’s to follow.  That’s certainly true of literature.  Consider the beginning of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground (translation Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky): “I am a sick man . . . I am a wicked man.  An unattractive man.  I think my liver hurts.”  Genius, really.  And this notion is definitely true of opinions.  Take, as an example, Wal-mart Stores v. Dukes: “We are presented with one of the most expansive class actions ever.”  Justice Scalia, from the get go, made clear that the class was doomed.  I imagine that readers have other humdingers of beginnings, do tell.


Stanford Law Review, 64.1 (2012)

Stanford Law Review

Volume 64 • Issue 1 • January 2012

The Right Not to Keep or Bear Arms
Joseph Blocher
64 Stan. L. Rev. 1

The Ghost That Slayed the Mandate
Kevin C. Walsh
64 Stan. L. Rev. 55

State Sovereign Standing:
Often Overlooked, but Not Forgotten

Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, II, E. Duncan Getchell, Jr.
& Wesley G. Russell, Jr.
64 Stan. L. Rev. 89

Establishing Official Islam?
The Law and Strategy of Counter-Radicalization

Samuel J. Rascoff
64 Stan. L. Rev. 125

Lobbying, Rent-Seeking, and the Constitution
Richard L. Hasen
64 Stan. L. Rev. 191

Bringing a Judicial Takings Claim
Josh Patashnik
64 Stan. L. Rev. 255


Levitt v. Yelp: Why Twombly/Iqbal Are Regrettable

I’m just at the start of my pleadings journey with my Civil Procedure II students, which has got me reading lots of terrific scholarship on the regrettable impact of Twombly and Iqbal.  Federal district court Judge Chen’s recent dismissal of the third amended complaint in Levitt v. Yelp, 2011 WL 5079526, seems a perfect example of why Twombly and Iqbal’s insistence upon factual plausibility before discovery transforms FRCP 12(b)(6) motions into something far different from sussing out “fair notice” and more like summary judgment as Suja Thomas astutely suggests.  (Scott Dodson and Adam Steinman also have insightful pieces on Twombly and Iqbal — New Pleading, New Discovery” and “The Pleading Problem,” respectively).

Let me first tell you a bit about the Levitt suit against Yelp.  Plaintiffs, two subclasses of business owners, alleged that Yelp unlawfully manipulated its business review pages to induce them to pay for advertising in violation of California’s civil extortion statute.  In a previous ruling, the court dismissed the complaint with leave to amend because it lacked factual allegations from which a threat might be plausibly inferred.  The Third Amended Complaint (TAC) added allegations concerning Yelp’s dealing with plaintiff Wheel Techniques (WT) in late 2008 and early 2009.  According to the TAC, soon after WT noticed negative reviews on its Yelp page that did not correspond with its actual customers, it received calls from Yelp representatives seeking advertisements.  Plaintiffs alleged that Yelp created false reviews to induce WT to advertise with it and that “200 Yelp employees or individuals acting on their behalf have written reviews of businesses on Yelp.” Plaintiffs alleged that when Wheel Techniques contacted Yelp to ask why a competitor had a high rating on Yelp, the Yelp representative told him the competitor advertised and “we work with your reviews if you advertise with us.” Id. ¶ 78. On March 8, 2010, Wheel Techniques was again contacted to purchase advertising. Upon declining, Plaintiffs allege that a 1–star review was moved to the top of the business page “within minutes” as a threat to induce Wheel Techniques to advertise. Id. ¶¶ 79–81. Plaintiffs allege that Wheel Techniques owner John Mercurio was told several Yelp employees had been fired and computers had been frozen “as a result of scamming related to advertising.” Id. ¶ 82.

The district court ran through the Twombly-Iqbal standard, with a few tweaks.  It explained that a complaint may be dismissed for failure to state a claim if it lacks a cognizable legal theory or sufficient facts alleged under a cognizable legal theory.  Citing Twombly, the court noted that a motion to dismiss should be granted if a plaintiff fails to plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement,’ but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.”  The court stated that “allegations of material fact are taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.”  (The “construed in the light most favorable” to the non-movant language was absent in Iqbal).  Citing Iqbal, the court said that: it “need not, however, accept as true pleadings that are no more than legal conclusions or the ‘formulaic recitation of the elements’ of a cause of action.   Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief … [is] a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.”  The court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim.  Here’s the court’s explanation:

The TAC, like the SAC, fails to allege facts sufficient to support a conclusion that Yelp created any content. Plaintiffs have added an allegation that “approximately 200 Yelp employees or individuals acting on behalf of Yelp have written reviews of businesses on Yelp,” TAC 37, and that “Yelp has paid users to write reviews,” id. ¶ 38. Despite these allegations, however, it remains “entirely speculative that Yelp manufactures its own negative reviews or deliberately manipulates reviews to the detriment of businesses who refuse to purchase advertising,” and “[t]he [TAC] provides no basis from which to infer that Yelp authored or manipulated the content of the negative reviews complained of by plaintiffs,” Order Dismissing SAC at 17.  That Yelp employees have written reviews, even for pay, does not raise more than a mere possibility that Yelp has authored or manipulated content related to Plaintiffs in furtherance of an attempt to “extort” advertising revenues. See Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950 (“[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not ‘show[n]’-‘that the pleader is entitled to relief.’ ”) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). Similarly, that Wheel Techniques noticed negative reviews of its business that did not match its customer records does not support the logical leap that Yelp created those reviews. See TAC ¶¶ 74–75. Nor does an allegation that Mr. Mercurio (Wheel Techniques’ owner) “was told” by an unnamed source “that a former Yelp employee stated that Yelp, upon information and belief, terminated a group of sales employees … as a result of scamming related to advertising” and that “the computers of sales employees were, at one point, frozen to prohibit employees from being able to change reviews” raise more than a speculative possibility that Yelp employees created or substantively manipulated the content of Plaintiffs’ reviews in this case. See TAC ¶ 82. “Scamming related to advertising” could have referred to a host of practices not involving manufacturing of false reviews.

Despite the court’s claim that it would draw all inferences in plaintiffs’ favor, it seemed to do the opposite.  The plaintiffs provided a factually plausible account of extortion: that Yelp employees write reviews; that after WT notice negative reviews that did not accord with its customer records, a Yelp representative called seeking advertising; that a Yelp employee told WT that it works with customers that advertise with it; that as soon as WT refused Yelp’s advertising solicitation, a one-star rating appeared at the top of its Yelp page; and that WT’s owner learned that Yelp employees had been fired due to scamming related to advertising.  Nonetheless, the court reads the allegations seemingly in the light most favorable to defendant movant, reasoning that scamming related to advertising could have referred to a host of practices not involving false reviews and that even if Yelp hired people to write reviews it does not raise more than a mere possibility that it manipulated content regarding WT to extort advertising revenues.  The court seemingly ignores the allegations related to the solicitation calls and the subsequent negative review appearing on WT’s page after it declined Yelp’s second advertising solicitation.  It’s difficult to imagine what more plaintiffs could have alleged at this stage in the game.  Taking a cue from Scott Dodson’s article “New Pleading, New Discovery,” plaintiffs need discovery to figure out if Yelp employees did what the circumstances suggest–manipulate reviews to bully WT and other plaintiffs into buying advertising.  In the end, Suja Thomas has it right.  This whole endeavor sounds a lot more like a summary judgment motion than a motion to dismiss.


Censorship on the March

Today, you can’t get to The Oatmeal, or Dinosaur Comics, or XKCD, or (less importantly) Wikipedia. The sites have gone dark to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act, America’s attempt to censor the Internet to reduce copyright infringement. This is part of a remarkable, distributed, coordinated protest effort, both online and in realspace (I saw my colleague and friend Jonathan Askin headed to protest outside the offices of Senators Charles Schumer and Kirstin Gillibrand). Many of the protesters argue that America is headed in the direction of authoritarian states such as China, Iran, and Bahrain in censoring the Net. The problem, though, is that America is not alone: most Western democracies are censoring the Internet. Britain does it for child pornography. France: hate speech. The EU is debating a proposal to allow “flagging” of objectionable content for ISPs to ban. Australia’s ISPs are engaging in pre-emptive censorship to prevent even worse legislation from passing. India wants Facebook, Google, and other online platforms to remove any content the government finds problematic.

Censorship is on the march, in democracies as well as dictatorships. With this movement we see, finally, the death of the American myth of free speech exceptionalism. We have viewed ourselves as qualitatively different – as defenders of unfettered expression. We are not. Even without SOPA and PROTECT IP, we are seizing domain names, filtering municipal wi-fi, and using funding to leverage colleges and universities to filter P2P. The reasons for American Internet censorship differ from those of France, South Korea, or China. The mechanism of restriction does not. It is time for us to be honest: America, too, censors. I think we can, and should, defend the legitimacy of our restrictions – the fight on-line and in Congress and in the media shows how we differ from China – but we need to stop pretending there is an easy line to be drawn between blocking human rights sites and blocking Rojadirecta or Dajaz1.

Cross-posted at Info/Law.