The “Short and Plain Statement” Requirement of Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure

Garrett v. Wexford Health, 938 F.3d 69 (3d Cir. 2019). This appeal was brought by a prisoner who claimed, as Chief Judge Smith summarized it, that “were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs and that they retaliated against him.” The District Court dismissed his case, holding that he had not exhausted administrative remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. 1997e(a) (“PLRA”), and that his operative Complaint, after several prior iterations, violated Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8. That rule requires pleadings to contain a “short and plain statement” of the plaintiff’s claims.

On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed. Chief Judge Smith offered a lengthy analysis of the PLRA issue and concluded that a supplemental pleading cured an original pleading defect that led to the District Court’s decision regarding failure to exhaust. The opinion discussed in detail the interplay of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15, regarding amended and supplemental pleadings, and the doctrine of relation back of such pleadings,

Chief Judge Smith then turned to the issue of whether plaintiff had satisfied the Rule 8 requirement of a “short and plain statement” of his claims. The abuse of discretion standard governed the panel’s review of that issue.

Rule 8, Chief Judge Smith said, imposes “minimal burdens on the plaintiff at the pleading stage.” A complaint need only provide fair notice of “what the … claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Whether Rule 8 is satisfied must be determined case-by-case, considering “circumstances surrounding the particular pleading, including the nature of the action, the sort of relief being sought, the availability of information, and other practical considerations.”

As to the “short” part of Rule 8, Chief Judge Smith said that there is “no single ‘proper length’ for stating a particular claim.” Instead, “[t]he level of factual detail will vary with the complexity of the claim asserted.” And a pleading is “plain” if it “identifies discrete defendants and the actions taken by these defendants,” even if it does not “include every name, date, and location of the incidents at issue.” In particular, a pro se complaint “will ordinarily be ‘plain’ if it presents cognizable legal claims to which a defendant can respond on the merits.” That is so even if it also “vague, repetitious, or contains extraneous information.”

Here, the operative complaint was fifteen pages long. Plaintiff took to heart the criticism of his prior pleadings by the Magistrate Judge, reducing a prior version by more than half. And defendants “respond[ed] to the merits of several of his claims in their appellate brief,” thus showing that “it was possible to understand and engage with Garrett’s claims on their merits.” The panel disagreed with the Magistrate Judge’s conclusion that the operative complaint remained “incomprehensible” and contained insufficient detail as to “who did what and when.”

Chief Judge Smith concluded by noting that there might be other bases for dismissal of some or all of the case. The matter was remanded for further proceedings.