The Scrivener

Publication year2020
CitationVol. 32 No. 3 Pg. 63
No. Vol. 32 Issue 3 Pg. 63
South Carolina Bar Journal
November, 2020

Shotgun Pleadings

By Scott Moise

My history with shotguns is not good. I was a pre-teen the first time I ever picked up a shotgun. Daddy thought I should have a target practice lesson in our back yard, but the recoil from my first shot almost took off my shoulder. So that was the last time I shot the gun. Many years later, I was going through airport security so I could board a flight to New York for depositions. While I was waiting for my big canvas carryon bag to reach the end of the baggage screening conveyor belt, the TSA agent ordered me to the side. Frowning and tense, he asked if I wanted to declare anything in my bag. “Rats,” I thought, “I forgot to take out the Diet Coke.” Within minutes, four additional agents surrounded me, total overkill for a Diet Coke. One agent then reached into the bag and—to my complete shock—reported into his walkie-talkie that he had confiscated “five rounds of live ammo.” Five. Rounds. Of. Live. Ammo. In. My. Bag. In. An. Airport. The live ammo turned out to be shotgun shells that I am 99% sure belonged to my high-school son, although he denies this fact. Unbelievably, after taking my identification and making several calls while I waited, paralyzed, the agents returned smiling and said I could go board my flight. Yes, it had a good ending, but I never wanted to see another shotgun or shell, ever.

Then, along came shotgun pleadings, bane of my existence.

What are shotgun pleadings, and why are they so bad?

Over 130 years ago, a judge in Georgia described the ideal 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 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.

Weiland v. Palm Beach Cty. Sheriff’s Office, 792 F.3d 1313, 1316 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Logan Bleckley, “Pleading,” 3 Ga. Bar Assoc. Report 40, 41-42 (1886)). Shotgun pleadings are the opposite of this.

South Carolina federal district courts have defined a “shotgun pleading” as “[a] complaint that fails to articulate claims with sufficient clarity to allow the defendant to frame a responsive pleading.” In re SCANA Corp. Sec. Litig., No. CV 3:17-2616-MBS, 2019 WL 1427443, at *5 (D.S.C. Mar. 29, 2019); Hill v. Stryker Sales Corp., No. 4:13-CV-0786-BHH, 2014 WL 4198906, at *2 (D.S.C. Aug. 20, 2014) (citations omitted).

The Stryker court noted that when reading a shotgun pleading, “it is virtually impossible to know which allegations of fact are intended to support which claim(s) for relief.” 2014 WL 4198906, at *2.

Further, shotgun pleadings violate two pleading rules of civil procedure: (1) Rule 8(a)(2) requires that “[a] pleading which states a claim for relief must contain . . . a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” (2) Rule 10(b) requires that “[a] party must state its claims or defenses in numbered paragraphs, each limited as far as practicable to a single set of circumstances. A later pleading may refer by number to a paragraph in an earlier pleading. If doing so would promote clarity, each claim founded on a separate transaction or occurrence—and each defense other than a denial— must be stated in a separate count or defense.”

But violating rules and bedeviling defendants are not the only problems with shotgun pleadings. A shotgun pleading, whether filed by plaintiffs or defendants, “ex-act[s] an intolerable toll” on the trial court’s docket; leads to unnecessary and unchanneled discovery; imposes unwarranted expense on the litigants, the court, and the court’s personnel and resources; delays justice; and causes difficulties to the courts of appeals and their litigants. Amin v. Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC, 349 F. Supp. 3d 1338, 1349 (N.D. Ga. 2018). The “unifying characteristic” of all shotgun pleadings is that they...

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