Emory Law Journal


The doctrine of municipal liability in cases brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 has been extensively criticized through widespread agreement that municipal liability claims are difficult for plaintiffs to win. Commentators generally blame stringent doctrinal and pleading standards for plaintiffs’ low rates of success.

This Article reveals another important contributing factor: the poor quality of many pleadings filed on behalf of civil rights plaintiffs. We present original empirical research documenting widespread pleading failures, or omissions of basic doctrinal elements. Our research demonstrates that pleading failures are common: an analysis of the complaint in every case that resulted in a federal appellate decision in 2019 reveals that 56.5% of complaints filed by represented parties failed even to state the elements of any theory of municipal liability, let alone plead those elements sufficient to meet the demanding Iqbal pleading standard.

The poor quality of civil rights complaints, while troubling, also offers an opportunity. Given that the current Supreme Court is unlikely to revise municipal liability doctrine, advocates would do well to focus efforts on improving the quality of complaints filed on behalf of civil rights plaintiffs. To this end, we identify areas in which complaints are particularly lacking and suggest ways to improve both the overall quality of attorney work product and the environment in which civil rights lawyering takes place.

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