Friday, May 09, 2003

Lawyer types should enjoy this latest opinion from Judge Easterbrook. An extended quote:
Garst's complaint did not allege any specific fraud, leading Lockheed to move for its dismissal. . . . Before the district court could act on Lockheed's motion, Garst filed an amended complaint. At 16 pages and 71 paragraphs, it was 50% longer than the initial complaint--but, the district judge concluded, no better. The court dismissed it for failure to plead fraud with particularity . . . .

Garst's second amended complaint ballooned to 74 double-spaced pages with 198 paragraphs. Concise it was not. Before Lockheed could respond, Garst filed a third amended complaint, which broke the scale at 109 pages containing 345 numbered paragraphs; this document had 74 attachments, many of them lengthy. Lockheed asked the district judge to dismiss this complaint for failure to plead fraud with particularity, as Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b) requires, and for the omission of any "short and plain statement of the claim", as Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) contemplates. These rules are not in conflict: it is possible to write a short statement narrating the claim--which is to say, the basic grievance--even if Rule 9(b) requires supplemental particulars. But the district judge concluded that this complaint is so sprawling as to be essentially incomprehensible (a Rule 8 problem) and that despite the bloat it lacks details outlining fraud (a Rule 9 shortcoming). Instead of dismissing this complaint, the judge directed Garst to file a more definite statement. . . . Garst responded with 23 single-spaced pages plus 25 new attachments. The statement is loaded with so many acronyms and cross-references to the third amended complaint (plus its attachments) that no one could understand it without juggling multiple documents. Concluding that matters had taken a turn for the worse, the district judge threw up his hands and dismissed the complaint, with prejudice, for Garst's inability or unwillingness to conform his pleadings to Rules 8 and 9.

The third amended complaint and statement together equate to 155 double-spaced pages and more than 400 numbered paragraphs, plus 99 attachments. You'd think that all this paper and ink would be enough to narrate at least one false claim. Yet Garst's appellate brief does not extract from the pleadings a single instance of a false statement made to obtain payment. A few selections from the "more definite statement" show why, after four years of overseeing Garst's efforts to plead a claim, the district judge's patience ran out. Here is the first paragraph of the "more definite statement," right under the caption "SPECIFIC FALSE OR FRAUDULENT CLAIMS FOR PAYMENT (SFCFP)" (a caption that shows Garst's love of inscrutable acronyms):

Claim for $ 2,584,926.04, MDS Ex. 1, TAC Ex. 47, submitted on August 9, 1993 and related payments by T.A. Sieverson, Vice-President of Lockheed Integrated Solutions Company, Lockheed Corporation to VA Contracting Officer Steve Stapleton for equipment and service provided during Phase I and Phase II of the OA&MM/ISMS LAN/WAN PROJECT. See TAC PP 141-181, 217-243, 252, 280-282, 291-295.

The acronyms alone force readers to look elsewhere. MDS means "More Definite Statement" and "TAC" means "Third Amended Complaint." LAN is local area network, WAN is wide-area network, and PROJECT appears to be the word "project" masquerading as an acronym. What "OA&MM/ISMS" might mean, we have not endeavored to discover. It is not defined anywhere in the more definite statement. To understand the paragraph one would have to read two exhibits and seventy-seven paragraphs scattered throughout the third amended complaint! This is simplification? Yet still one would not learn (a) what Sieverson said, (b) why it is false, and (c) what OA&MM/ISMS stands for. Paragraph 21 of the "specific false claims" reads: "All Lockheed invoices and payments within the statute of limitations following Lockheed purchasing tickets in excess of one thousand dollars for VA presidential appointees and senior executives, as detailed in TAC P55-Ex 5 and 6." This is specific? How does "all Lockheed invoices and payments within the statute of limitations" zero in on the fraud? And, once again, what were the statements and why were they false?

* * *

We could go on with other paragraphs of the complaint and statement, but there would be little point to the exercise. . . . [E]ven if it were possible to navigate through these papers to a few specific instances of fraud, why should the court be obliged to try? Rule 8(a) requires parties to make their pleadings straightforward, so that judges and adverse parties need not try to fish a gold coin from a bucket of mud. Federal judges have better things to do, and the substantial subsidy of litigation (court costs do not begin to cover the expense of the judiciary) should be targeted on those litigants who take the preliminary steps to assemble a comprehensible claim. . . .

Some complaints are windy but understandable. Surplusage can and should be ignored. Instead of insisting that the parties perfect their pleadings, a judge should bypass the dross and get on with the case. A district court is not "authorized to dismiss a complaint merely because it contains repetitious and irrelevant matter, a disposable husk around a core of proper pleading." But although "fat in a complaint can be ignored", "dismissal of a complaint on the ground that it is unintelligible is unexceptionable." Length may make a complaint unintelligible, by scattering and concealing in a morass of irrelevancies the few allegations that matter. Three other circuits have held that length and complexity may doom a complaint by obfuscating the claim's essence. . . . At 400 paragraphs covering 155 pages, and followed by 99 attachments, Garst's distended pleadings join that unsavory company. A concise statement of the claim illustrated by 400 concrete examples of fraud would be one thing, but 400 variations on the kind of paragraph we have quoted are quite another. Complaints like this are pestilential, and the district court showed great restraint in wading through four iterations plus one "more definite statement" before giving up. Garst received more judicial attention than his pleadings deserved.


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