An Inference to the Best Explanation: How Courts Should Decide 12(b)(6) Motions in the Era of Plausibility Pleading

A complaint may be dismissed for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”  Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).  On a motion to dismiss, the Court must accept as true all of the factual allegations in the complaint, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff.  Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008).  The Court generally “may not consider matters extraneous to the pleadings.”  In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997).  Moreover, when considering the sufficiency of the pleading, Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) requires a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.”  While Rule 8 does not require detailed factual allegations, “it demands more than an unadorned, ‘the defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me’ accusation.”  Ashcroft v. Iqbal, ___ U.S. ___, ___, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009) (internal citations and quotations omitted).

In Iqbal, the complaint alleges that “the [FBI], under the direction of Defendant . . . arrested and detained thousands of Arab Muslim men . . . as part of its investigation of the events of September 11.” It further claims that “[t]he policy of holding post–September–11th detainees in highly restrictive conditions of confinement until they were ‘cleared’ by the FBI was approved by Defendants . . .  in discussions in the weeks after September 11, 2001.” The Court notes that, taken as true, these allegations are consistent with the purposeful detainment “of high interest” individuals because of their race, religion, or national origin. The Court further holds, however, that given more likely explanations, the pleaded allegations do not plausibly establish this purpose.  Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at  1951.

. . . It should come as no surprise that a legitimate policy directing law enforcement to arrest and detain individuals because of their suspected link to the [September 11th] attacks would produce a disparate, incidental impact on Arab Muslims, even though the purpose of the policy was to target neither Arabs nor Muslims. On the facts respondent alleges the arrests . . . were likely lawful and justified by . . . nondiscriminatory intent to detain aliens who were illegally present in the United States and who had potential connections to those who committed terrorist acts. As between that “obvious alternative explanation” for the arrests . . .  and the purposeful, invidious discrimination respondent asks us to infer, discrimination is not a plausible conclusion.” Id. (Internal citations omitted).
In so holding, the Court makes an inference to the best explanation (“IBE”):  the more plausible and seemingly ‘best’ way to account for the available data is to infer that the arrests were “lawful and justified by . . . nondiscriminatory intent to detain aliens who . . . had potential connections to those who committed terrorist attacks.”

Step back for a moment and note the difference between ‘accounting for’ the evidence and ‘explaining’ the evidence: Lots of hypotheses can successfully account for consequences, but corroboration (i.e., correctly predicting consequences) is not confirmation. A hypothesis/knowledge- claim that ‘explains’ is better.

If . . . we think of the inference as an inference to the best explanation, we can explain when a person is and when he is not warranted in making the inference from “All observed A’s are B’s” to “All A’s are B’s.” The answer is that one is warranted in making this inference whenever the hypothesis that all A’s are B’s is (in the light of all the evidence) a better, simpler, more plausible . . . hypothesis than is the hypothesis, say, that someone is biasing the observed sample in order to make us think that all A’s are B’s.” Gilbert Harman, The Inference to the Best Explanation, 124 Phil. Rev. 88, 90-91  (1965).

The ‘best’ explanation, then, is the hypothesis that explains more, is simpler, more plausible, makes fewer assumptions, and requires less ad hoc changes. Id. at 88. Thus, the Court’s conclusion in Iqbal is justified by IBE “not simply as a possible explanation, but as the best explanation in contrast with alternatives.” John R. Josephson, On the Proof Dynamics of Inference to the Best Explanation, 22 Cardozo L. Rev. 1621, 1622 (2001). Even if it turns out that the Court is wrong (i.e., there really was purposeful and invidious discrimination), IBE says that it is still reasonable for the Court to have made the inference that it did; for the theory of nondiscriminatory intent provides a better explanation for the available evidence than would any other hypothesis know at the time. (I’ve always found that corollary to be particularly fascinating!)

The proper inquiry for a court is whether the pleaded facts allow the court to draw a reasonable inference to the alleged legal conclusion. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1949 (“To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face”)  (internal citations and quotations omitted). But notice what kind of plausibility we are talking about here. Acceptability of the premises is ‘off the table,’ as the pleaded facts are presumed true. Phillips, 515 F.3d at 231. Thus, the plausibility on which 12(b)(6) motions rise and fall is whether the premises, taken as true, are relevant and sufficient enough; that is, strong and tight enough, to reasonably lead to the legal conclusion.  It would be easy to say that this is merely a logical issue (e.g., “Is the conclusion deductively valid?”) but because most conclusions are inductive, Federal Courts are going to have to use epistemic tools like IBE in order to evaluate these claims.

Still, the question remains: should courts really be determining, at the Motion to Dismiss stage,  what is the ‘best’ explanation and what is a ‘plausible’ allegation?

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