Court Limits Right to Cure Improper “Shotgun” Pleadings

The term “shotgun pleading” refers to a complaint that, for one reason or other, fails to give the defendants adequate notice of the claims against them. In the Eleventh Circuit, courts have identified roughly four categories of shotgun pleadings: (1) a pleading with multiple counts where each count adopts the allegations of all preceding counts; (2) a pleading that relies on conclusory and vague allegations not tied to any cause of action; (3) a pleading that fails to separate out its various causes of action and claims for relief; and (4) a pleading that asserts numerous claims against multiple defendants without specifying which defendants are responsible for which acts or omissions. Weiland v. Palm Beach Cty. Sheriff’s Office, 792 F.3d 1313, 1321–23 (11th Cir. 2015). By their very nature, shotgun pleadings violate Rule 8’s mandate to provide “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8.

In Vibe Micro, Inc. v. Shabanets, 2018 WL 268849 (11th Cir. Jan. 3, 2018), the court blasted another shotgun pleading. Edward Mandel sued various parties alleging he was the victim of a scheme to force him off the board of a bill-payment terminal company. Mr. Mandel’s complaint asserted both federal and state law claims, spanned 49 pages, and included an additional 109 pages of exhibits. Shortly after filing, Mr. Mandel amended his complaint as a matter of right, adding even more allegations and exhibits. On motions to dismiss by the various defendants, the district court (S.D. Fla.) found the amended complaint to be a shotgun pleading that was “a mostly incoherent document” riddled with allegations “oftentimes not connected to a particular Defendant or set of Defendants, making it impossible to understand who did what.” Although Mr. Mandel did not request the opportunity to amend his pleading, the district court sua sponte granted him the opportunity to do so, providing specific guidance as to how to remedy the deficiencies in the amended complaint. Mr. Mandel then filed a second amended complaint, which “ballooned to 70 pages, with 160 pages of exhibits.” The district court, finding the second amended complaint was plagued by the same issues underlying the first amended complaint, dismissed the case with prejudice for violating Rule 8’s requirement to provide “a short and plain statement of the claim.” Mr. Mandel did not request—and the district court did not offer—the opportunity to file another amended pleading.

On appeal, Mr. Mandel acknowledged that the second amended complaint was a shotgun pleading, but argued the district court can never dismiss a pleading with prejudice on Rule 8 shotgun pleading grounds unless it finds evidence of bad faith. In an opinion authored by Judge Chuck Wilson, the Eleventh Circuit disagreed, ultimately concluding that “[w]hen a litigant files a shotgun pleading, is represented by counsel, and fails to request leave to amend, a district court must sua sponte give him one chance to replead before dismissing his case with prejudice on non-merits shotgun pleading grounds.” (emphasis added). Because Mr. Mandel was represented by counsel and had been given an opportunity to amend his shotgun complaint, the Eleventh Circuit held it was appropriate for the district court to dismiss Mr. Mandel’s claims with prejudice under Rule 8 without providing an additional opportunity to amend. The court did not consider whether the same rule would apply in the context of a pro se plaintiff. Id. Further, the court remanded the case “for the limited purpose of clarifying that the dismissal of the state law claims is without prejudice(citing Carnegie-Mellon Univ. v. Cohill, 484 U.S. 343, 350 & n.7 (1988)) (holding that, when a district court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over state-law claims, it should dismiss those claims without prejudice).

Posted by John Sharpe.

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