A death-row inmate, Henry Skinner, convinced a majority of the Supreme Court that he could bring a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to seek additional DNA testing. Skinner won 6:3, with Ginsburg writing the majority opinion, and Thomas writing a dissent joined by Kennedy and Alito. The case contains some important procedural rulings relevant to both civil and criminal cases. Skinner v. Switzer, 2011 WL 767703 (Mar. 7, 2011).
First, the Court addressed the threshold issue of what level of specificity regarding the legal theory of the case was required for the complaint to survive a motion to dismiss. The Court stated: “Skinner’s complaint is not a model of the careful drafter’s art, but under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a complaint need not pin plaintiff’s claim for relief to a precise legal theory. Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure generally requires only a plausible ‘short and plain’ statement of the plaintiff’s claim, not an exposition of his legal argument.” The dissent suggested that the complaint was “more naturally read” to allege a substantive due process claim rather than procedural due process, but the dissent “adopt[ed] the majority’s view” of the legal theory in the complaint, without advocating dismissal for a lack of clarity. Thus, all appeared to agree that the complaint need not fully flesh out the plaintiff’s legal theory.
Second, the Court rejected the challenge to federal court jurisdiction based on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Recently, a district court applied Rooker-Feldman to bar a Medicaid claim. The case was appealed to the Sixth Circuit (contact me for amicus brief), but the claimant died before the appeal was argued and the appeal was dismissed as moot. In Skinner, the Supreme Court majority emphasized the very limited reach of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, and the dissent made no reference to Rooker-Feldman, dissenting on other grounds. The Court noted that Rooker-Feldman bars federal court jurisdiction only when a plaintiff seeks federal court review of a state court decision. As long as the plaintiff presents an independent claim, Rooker-Feldman does not bar federal jurisdiction of a question identical or related to a question raised in a state court proceeding. The Court explained: “a state-court decision is not reviewable by lower federal courts, but a statute or rule governing the decision may be challenged in a federal action.”