In Oliver v. Brown & Morrison, Ltd., 2022 NCBC 16, the Business Court weighed a challenge to an allegedly “sprawling, 247-paragraph Complaint, largely padded by needless detail” that defendants claimed violated Rule 8(a)’s requirement of a “short and plain statement of the claim” by instead providing something long and elaborate. Defendants claimed the complaint included “excessive and unnecessary information” that was “so egregious” that outright dismissal of the complaint was merited. Id. ¶¶ 84, 85.
Rule 8(a)(1) “adopted the concept of notice pleading” (Id. ¶ 61) in North Carolina courts with its requirement that a pleading contain:
“A short and plain statement of the claim sufficiently particular to give the court and the parties notice of the transactions, occurrences, or series of transactions or occurrences, intended to be proved showing that the pleader is entitled to relief[.]”
The Court noted this rule has been interpreted such that “a statement of claim is adequate if it gives sufficient notice of the claim asserted to enable the adverse party to answer and prepare for trial, to allow for the application of res judicata, and to show the type of case brought.” Id. (quoting Wake County v. Hotels.com, L.P., 235 N.C. App. 633, 646 (2014)).
Judge Robinson acknowledged that Rule 8 is not often used to attack a pleading that provides more notice of plaintiff’s claims than is required (¶ 86):
“The Business Court has not often grappled with this type of Rule 8 motion seeking to dismiss a complaint for containing too much detail; however, when it has done so, it did not dismiss a pleading containing arguably superfluous detail.”
The Court acknowledged federal cases that might support a stricter reading “given the similarities between the federal companion rule and North Carolina’s Rule 8.” Id. ¶ 85. For instance, defendants argued that dismissal of entire complaints is appropriate when they “ramble, [ ] needlessly speculate, accuse and condemn, and [ ] contain circuitous diatribes far removed from the heart of the claim.” Barsella v. United States, 135 F.R.D. 64, 66 (S.D.N.Y. 1991). No one, defendants asserted, should be forced “to wade through a ‘morass of superfluous detail’” to identify a complaint’s animating purpose. NCBC 16, ¶ 85. (quoting North Carolina v. McGuirt, 114 Fed. Appx. 555, 559 (4th Cir. 2004) (unpublished)).
To be sure, there is some extra-contextual information among the complaint’s many, many allegations. In relation to plaintiff’s employment fortunes, there’s a five-paragraph backgrounder on COVID’s spread and economic impact, brief commentary on record unemployment levels in April 2020, and a glossary of accounting terms largely sourced to Black’s Law Dictionary which the judges and clerks of a specialty business court don’t need. For the most part, though, the complaint is just a very long, exceptionally inclusive run-down of plaintiff’s laments about the ending of his once-promising affiliation with a corporate entity.
Judge Robinson acknowledged the complaint was “hardly a lesson in brevity or clarity,” but preferred the more forgiving approaches previously adopted by the Business Court that disfavored conclusions that “allegations are so voluminous or incomprehensible [as] to prevent [the opposing party] from discerning the nature and basis” of a complaint’s allegations. Id. ¶¶ 84, 87 (quoting Kingsdown, Inc. v. Hinshaw, 2015 WL 1441826, *4). See also Mecklenburg Cty. Buckley LLP v. Series 1 of Oxford Ins. Co. NC LLC, 2020 WL 1660043, *3) (noting Rule 8’s “broad freedom in pleading” would allow a five-page introduction as part of a 118-paragraph complaint) (we wrote about Buckley here).
Defendants argued the complaint was “excessively prolix,” and Judge Robinson may well have agreed, but he found dismissal an inapt remedy. “[T]he Court does not believe Oliver’s Complaint here is sufficiently egregious to warrant such a harsh penalty.” NCBC 16, ¶ 88. Especially where the moving defendants were able to discern and attack the complaint sufficiently to secure dismissal of its negligent misrepresentation and negligence claims, the Court left for another day identification of guideposts for when too much notice of a complaint’s claims might be fatal.
- A plaintiff has considerable latitude in bulking up a complaint in North Carolina state court but might still be wise to heed the wisdom of philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal (sometimes misattributed to Mark Twain): “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter.”
Brad Risinger is a partner in the Raleigh office of Fox Rothschild LLP.