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Federal judges cannot force plaintiffs to meet higher pleading standards than those set forth in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a federal appeals court has ruled in a case of first impression. The ruling, from a unanimous panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, came in a discrimination lawsuit by a former New York state police officer who alleged he was harassed and treated with hostility on the job. The plaintiff, Kenneth Wynder, who is black, first filed his suit in February 1999. He alleged that while working as a counselor at the State Police Academy, he was forced to do manual labor that white counselors were not made to do. He also claimed he was denied a promotion and made to stand facing a picture with a Confederate flag in it while interviewing for a position with the Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Eastern District Judge David G. Trager twice dismissed Wynder’s complaint with leave to replead, and imposed specific conditions on the form and content of any future pleading. The judge, who was clearly distressed by the pleading’s organization and lack of clarity, asked that Wynder and his attorney file a detailed complaint against each named defendant. He said the pleading should cite evidence and articulate a legal theory of the case. He also asked that it be written in “plain English.” When the judge later found that Wynder did not comply, he dismissed the case pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 41(b). Wynder appealed, and in Wynder v. McMahon, 02-9101, the 2nd Circuit ruled that Trager had overreached by asking for pleading standards in addition to those required under Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a). Dismissal under the rule, the court said, should be reserved for the most confusing, ambiguous and vague complaints. “The key to Rule (a)’s requirements is whether adequate notice is given,” Judge Guido Calabresi wrote for the court. “In the case before us, plaintiff’s submission is a model of neither clarity nor brevity, and we can sympathize with the district court’s displeasure with it, but it is sufficient to put the defendants on fair notice.” The court said that Trager had asked Wynder to supply a complaint that “substantially exceeded the requirements of Rule 8,” which is “extremely permissive” and requires only a short and plain statement of the claim and the grounds on which it rests. The court added that although Rule 41(b) allows judges to dismiss lawsuits that fail to comply with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, including Rule 8, it cannot be used to dismiss a suit based on pleading requirements not found in Rule 8(a). “This would not only be troublesome in the individual case, where a plaintiff would be held to account for omissions deemed immaterial under the Rules; it would be particularly problematic across the span of cases,” Calabresi wrote. “For then district courts could impose disparate levels of pleading requirements on different sorts of plaintiffs. In both respects, Rule 8(a)’s purposes — to lower the entry barriers for federal plaintiffs and to establish prospectively a rule common to all litigants — would be violated.” The 2nd Circuit said Trager could strike particular portions of the complaint that did not comply with Rule 8. Chief Judge John M. Walker and Judge Jose A. Cabranes concurred with Calabresi’s opinion. Richard J. Merritt handled the appeal for Wynder. Susan H. Odessky, an attorney in the office of New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, represented the state.

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