Twombly-Iqbal “Plausibility” and Maryland’s Pleading Requirements
Kamil Ismail Guest contributor
In a pair of decisions from 2007 and 2009, the Supreme Court of the United States established what has become known as the Twombly-Iqbal standard for a federal complaint to state a claim. With Twombly-Iqbal now entrenched in federal court, practitioners may be wondering whether that standard’s “plausibility” requirement also applies to complaints in state court. A better question, though, may be whether such a requirement was ever lacking in state court.
In three recent unreported opinions, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals has effectively applied that standard without acknowledging any reliance on it. That reticence may be unwarranted in light of other precedents that suggest that Maryland pleading requirements have always had much of the rigor that Twombly-Iqbal is only now requiring in federal court.
In Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, the Supreme Court tightened the previously lenient, notice-pleading standard that had reigned in federal courts for decades, holding that Federal Rule 8(a)(2) required a claim to possess, at a minimum, enough “heft” to show the pleader’s entitlement to relief.  The Court stated that a complaint needs “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action”; instead, it requires factual allegations sufficient “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.”  To be viable in federal court, thus, a complaint must have “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” 
Two years later, the Court expanded on this “plausibility” standard in Ashcroft v. Iqbal. To have enough “facial plausibility” to survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must “plead factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” This requires “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.”  “Where a complaint pleads facts that are ‘merely consistent with’ a defendant’s liability, it ‘stops shorts of the line between possibility and plausibility of “entitlement to relief.”’” 
Post-Iqbal, the Maryland Court of Appeals has yet to address the “plausibility” requirement for state-court complaints, and the Court of Special Appeals has been cautious in addressing it in three unreported opinions to date. Twice, the intermediate court has affirmed dismissal of a complaint, expressly applying a “plausibility” standard – but without citing Twombly or Iqbal. And in a third case, the court recognized that the language of well-established Maryland precedents was “reminiscent of the pleading standard” in Twombly and Iqbal, affirmed the dismissal of a “sparse” complaint whose allegations were “the type of ‘bald assertions and conclusory statements’ that courts will not accept,” but declined to rest its conclusion explicitly on Twombly-Iqbal. 
This caution is understandable prior to a definitive ruling by the Court of Appeals. It might, however, be unnecessary in light of what could be considered Twombly-Iqbal’s virtual antecedents in Maryland’s own pleading requirements.
In adopting the “plausibility” requirement for federal courts, the Twombly Court abrogated a 50-year-old precedent, Conley v. Gibson, which had held that “a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.”  But even before Twombly and Iqbal rejected Conley, the Conley standard had never held sway in Maryland courts. To the contrary, the Court of Appeals had expressly rejected it at least seven years before Twombly, holding in Manikhi v. MTA that “contrary to federal practice, dismissals for failure to state a claim are not limited to those cases in which ‘it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no state of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.’”
Five years later – but still two years before Twombly – Judge Rodowsky, the author of the Manikhi opinion, expanded on these pleading requirements while sitting on special assignment in the Court of Special Appeals. In McMahon v. Piazze, he first reviewed Maryland Rule 2-303(b), which requires “such statements of fact as may be necessary to show the pleader’s entitlement to relief.” He also noted that Maryland Rule 2-305 requires claims for relief to contain “a clear statement of the facts necessary to constitute a cause of action.” Under these authorities along with Manikhi, he wrote, a petition failed to state a claim where its factual allegations were “extremely general,” consisting of “no more than a reference to factors present in almost any case,” along with “conclusory” averments and a “nexus between facts and conclusion” that could only be inferred “by speculation.”
No more than “a reference to factors present in almost any case”? A nexus between facts and conclusion that is dependent on “speculation”? Echoes – or prechoes, if one might coin a word – of Iqbal, anyone? Specifically: “Where a complaint pleads facts that are merely consistent with a defendant’s liability, it stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.”? 
In light of these antecedents, is the real question whether the Court of Appeals will eventually adopt Twombly-Iqbal? Or whether that standard already inheres in Maryland’s longstanding pleading requirements?
 550 U.S. 544 (2007).
 Id. at 557.
 Id. at 555.
 Id. at 570 (emphasis added).
 556 U.S. 662 (2009).
 Id. at 678.
 See Wilson v. Exxon Mobil Corp., No. 1524/14, 2015 WL 6549167 at *1 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Aug. 13, 2015) (holding that claimants had failed to establish a “plausible entitlement to relief” and affirming dismissal); Heflin v. Ulman, No. 156/15, 2016 WL 1360805 at *1, 4 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Apr. 6, 2016) (holding that allegations were “insufficient to state a plausible claim” and affirming dismissal).
 Id. at *6.
 Id. at *5 n. 3 (noting that the “Court of Appeals has yet to consider the applicability of the Twombly-Iqbal plausibility standard in Maryland state cases,” and stating that the panel’s “decision does not invoke or consider the Twombly-Iqbal standard in any way”).
 355 U.S. 41 (1957).
 Id. at 45-46. See also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 561-63 (abrogating Conley).
 360 Md. 333 (2000).
 Id. at 343 (citing Conley with disapproval).
 162 Md. App. 588 (2005).
 Id. at 597 (quoting Md. R. 2-303(b)).
 Id. (quoting Md. R. 2-305).
 Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (internal quotation marks omitted).