SYKES, Circuit Judge.
Michael Stanard built an outdoor stage on his property in rural McHenry County, Illinois, and began hosting events there. He claims that Keith Nygren, the Sheriff of McHenry County, forced him to hire off-duty deputies as a private security force for these events and threatened to close the road leading to his property if he did not comply. Stanard sued Nygren, 22 of his deputies, and McHenry County, alleging a conspiracy to violate his rights, but his attorney Walter Maksym proved unable to file an intelligible complaint. After giving Maksym three tries at producing a complaint that complied with Rules 8 and 10(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the district court dismissed the case with prejudice. On Stanard's behalf Maksym brought this appeal, insisting that the second amended complaint satisfied the rules, and even if it did not, the district court should have given him yet another chance to replead.
We affirm. The district court was well within its discretion to reject the second amended complaint and dismiss the case with prejudice. Each iteration of the complaint was generally incomprehensible and riddled with errors, making it impossible for the defendants to know what wrongs they were accused of committing. Maksym's persistent failure to comply with basic directions from the court and his open defiance of court orders amply justified the judge's decision to dismiss with prejudice. Moreover, like his pleadings in the district court, Maksym's appellate briefing is woefully deficient, raising serious concerns about his competence to
We describe the facts only briefly and as best we can decipher them from the second amended complaint and Stanard's appellate briefs. The procedural history of the case is also important to the resolution of the issues on appeal.
The plaintiffs are H. Michael Stanard, his wife Joeleen, and their company One Zero Charlie Productions.
Stanard, by his counsel Walter Maksym, sued Nygren in his individual and official capacities, along with 22 deputies, McHenry County, and unknown additional defendants.
The defendants moved for a more definite statement under Rule 12(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Stanard was ordered to either respond or file a notice saying that he declined to do so. Maksym ignored the motion and order. Nevertheless, a magistrate judge denied Rule 12(e) relief. Nygren then moved to dismiss the official-capacity claims. Maksym continued to disregard deadlines. Stanard's response to Nygren's motion was due in October 2007, but Maksym failed to respond. Three months later, the court, on its own motion, extended this deadline to February 11, but again Maksym failed to respond by that date. On February 19 he finally filed a response to Nygren's motion.
In the meantime, the defendants jointly moved to dismiss the rest of the complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The court set a January 11, 2008 deadline for Stanard to respond. Maksym missed this deadline, too. On January 23, nearly two weeks after the deadline to respond had expired, Maksym asked for an extension of time. The court granted this request and extended the deadline to March 18.
The district court granted the motions to dismiss. The court dismissed the frivolous claims mentioned above (the Hobbs Act claim, the "direct action under [the] U.S. Constitution," and the "federal class action") with prejudice.
At 10:34 p.m. on September 30, Maksym moved for an extension of time to file his amended complaint. The stated basis for this motion was that Maksym's computer was damaged in an earthquake while he was in California sitting for that state's bar exam in late July.
On October 31, at 4:41 p.m., Maksym filed another motion for leave to amend, along with a second amended complaint inexplicably titled "First Amended Complaint." Again, few of the many errors in the earlier complaints were fixed. The district court rejected Maksym's latest effort, outlining at length the many pleading defects in the second amended complaint. To illustrate its basic incoherence, the court quoted verbatim from a number of its paragraphs, including one that contained a staggering and incomprehensible 345-word sentence. The court also took note of the "grammatical and spelling errors" throughout the complaint, which it said were "too numerous to add `[sic]' where required." Noting that the purpose of Rules 8 and 10 is to provide "`fair notice' of the claims and the grounds upon
Accordingly, the court dismissed the federal claims with prejudice and relinquished jurisdiction over the supplemental state-law claims.
Maksym's inability to articulate a "short and plain statement" of his clients' claims for relief did not end in the district court, nor did he improve his approach to court-ordered deadlines and following simple directions once the case reached this court. Maksym sought and received no fewer than three extensions of time to file his opening brief on appeal.
Stanard argues that the district court should not have rejected his second amended complaint, or at least should have dismissed without prejudice and with leave to replead. The parties initially disagree about the standard of review. Stanard argues that because the district court dismissed the proposed amended complaint, our review is de novo. See Palka v. Shelton, 623 F.3d 447, 451 (7th Cir.2010) (An order dismissing a complaint is reviewed de novo.). The defendants maintain, however, that the standard of review is abuse of discretion because the district court denied leave to file the second amended complaint because it failed to comply with Rules 8 and 10. See Davis v. Ruby Foods, Inc., 269 F.3d 818, 820 (7th Cir.2001).
The defendants are correct. This case comes to us as an appeal from the district court's order denying leave to file the second amended complaint because it failed to comply with Rules 8 and 10. Stanard has not challenged the dismissal of the original complaint for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6); he challenges only the denial of his motion for leave to file the second amended complaint, as well as the district court's decision to dismiss with prejudice. Leave to amend in this situation is discretionary, see FED.R.CIV.P. 15(a)(2), and the court may reject a proffered amended complaint if it
Rule 8 requires that a complaint contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." FED.R.CIV.P. 8(a)(2). Moreover, "[e]ach allegation must be simple, concise, and direct." Id. 8(d)(1). Rule 10 requires the pleader to state his claims in separate numbered paragraphs, "each limited as far as practicable to a single set of circumstances," and also requires that "each claim founded on a separate transaction or occurrence" be "stated in a separate count" if "doing so would promote clarity." Id. 10(b). The primary purpose of these rules is to give defendants fair notice of the claims against them and the grounds supporting the claims. Killingsworth v. HSBC Bank Nev., N.A., 507 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir.2007) (Rule 8(a)) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). The pleading requirements also "frame the issue[s] and provide the basis for informed pretrial proceedings." Bautista v. Los Angeles Cnty., 216 F.3d 837, 841 (9th Cir. 2000) (discussing Rule 10(b)); see also Anderson v. Dist. Bd. of Trs., 77 F.3d 364, 367 (11th Cir.1996) (same).
Two themes emerge from our cases applying Rules 8 and 10. First, undue length alone ordinarily does not justify the dismissal of an otherwise valid complaint. Where a complaint does not comply with Rule 8's mandate of "a short and plain statement of the claim" but nevertheless puts the defendant on notice of the plaintiff's claims, dismissal is inappropriate "merely because of the presence of superfluous matter." Davis, 269 F.3d at 820. Davis held that "[i]f the [trial] court understood the allegations sufficiently to determine that they could state a claim for relief, the complaint has satisfied Rule 8," and dismissal based on the inclusion of superfluous material is inappropriate. Id. at 820-21 (quotation marks omitted); see also Bennett v. Schmidt, 153 F.3d 516, 518 (7th Cir.1998) ("Prolixity is a bane of the legal profession but a poor ground for rejecting potentially meritorious claims. Fat in a complaint can be ignored, confusion or ambiguity dealt with by means other than dismissal."); cf. Hrubec v. Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp., 981 F.2d 962, 963 (7th Cir.1992) (complaints construed in favor of drafters in order to do substantial justice). But see United States ex rel. Garst v. Lockheed-Martin Corp., 328 F.3d 374, 378 (7th Cir.2003) ("Length may make a complaint unintelligible by scattering and concealing in a morass of irrelevancies the few allegations that matter.").
Though length alone is generally insufficient to justify rejecting a complaint,
Id.; see also Davis, 269 F.3d at 820 ("The dismissal of a complaint on the ground that it is unintelligible is unexceptionable.").
Applying these principles here, the district court was well within its discretion in refusing to accept Stanard's proposed second amended complaint. We agree that it crossed the line from just "unnecessarily long" to "unintelligible." Though the complaint was far longer than it needed to be, prolixity was not its chief deficiency. Rather, its rampant grammatical, syntactical, and typographical errors contributed to an overall sense of unintelligibility. This was compounded by a vague, confusing, and conclusory articulation of the factual and legal basis for the claims and a general "kitchen sink" approach to pleading the case. This was Maksym's third attempt to draft a comprehensible pleading, yet his effort to comply with the court's earlier directions was half-hearted at best; the proffered second amended complaint was rife with errors. We include a sampling to provide an understanding of its shortcomings:
Perhaps these defects, considered alone, might not justify the court's rejection of the second amended complaint. Collectively, however, they are easily egregious enough to warrant denial of the motion for leave to amend. The complaint's lack of clarity would have severely disadvantaged the defendants when it came time to responsively plead to, much less defend against, the claims. To form a defense, a defendant must know what he is defending against; that is, he must know the legal wrongs he is alleged to have committed and the factual allegations that form the core of the claims asserted against him. Deciphering even that much from the second amended complaint is
The court's decision to dismiss the case with prejudice was also eminently reasonable. Again, this was Maksym's third attempt to plead properly, and he was still far from doing so. Moreover, Maksym repeatedly failed to follow explicit directions from the district court about how to correct specific problems in the first two complaints. The failures are too numerous to list here, but take as an example Maksym's approach to the § 1983 claim. As we have noted, the first complaint alleged in a wholly conclusory fashion that the defendants had violated Stanard's First, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Reviewing that complaint, the district court noted that "the allegations in Count III [the § 1983 count] do not permit the court to determine which of the allegations in paragraphs 1-41 ... support the alleged violations of the five constitutional amendments referred to in Count III." The court admonished Maksym "to be mindful of his obligation ... to ensure that any claims asserted are warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for extending, modifying, or reversing existing law or for establishing new law." The court issued this reminder "in light of the fact that the current complaint contain[s] several questionable claims," noting in particular that it purported to assert a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which protects only those who have been convicted of a crime. See Lewis v. Downey, 581 F.3d 467, 474 (7th Cir.2009).
Rather than fix these and other errors identified by the court, Maksym submitted a proposed amended complaint that in most respects used exactly the same language, even reasserting the frivolous Eighth Amendment claim. As the district court noted,
Maksym was then given a third opportunity to plead correctly despite his flagrant disregard for the court's first order. He continued to demonstrate either an inability or unwillingness to comply with basic directions. Although Maksym removed the reference to the Eighth Amendment in the § 1983 claim, he made no other legitimate effort to comply with the court's directives. In the district court's words, Maksym's latest amendment did "nothing to correct the deficiencies previously identified. The court and defense counsel remain in the dark as to which acts ... by which defendants violated which of the four constitutional provisions that plaintiffs allege were transgressed."
It is true that the pleading rules favor decisions on the merits rather than
The same is true here. Maksym had three opportunities to file a complaint that complied with the rules, yet he failed to follow basic instructions from the court. In many ways Maksym's conduct was much more egregious than that of the attorneys in Airborne Beepers. There, plaintiff's counsel at least had made concrete changes to the complaint at each stage in an effort to comply with the court's directions. Here, in contrast, Maksym made almost no changes in each new version of his complaint. As such, he flagrantly disobeyed the court's patient instructions. Moreover, he missed multiple deadlines and barely made others that had been repeatedly extended. The record as a whole attests to the district court's diligence in attempting to move the case past the pleadings stage; yet despite the court's earnest efforts, Maksym did not take advantage of the repeated opportunities he was given. Under the circumstances, the judge was fully justified in not giving him another chance. See Frederiksen v. City of Lockport, 384 F.3d 437, 439 (7th Cir.2004) (dismissal with prejudice was appropriate where plaintiff failed to comply with Rule 10(b) over multiple attempts and years and where district court reasonably viewed failure to comply as defiance of court orders). The principle that leave to amend should be freely granted does not require district judges to repeatedly indulge attorneys who show little ability or inclination to comply with the rules. Cf. Atkins v. City of Chicago, 631 F.3d 823, 832 (7th Cir.2011) ("The plaintiff's lawyer has had four bites at the apple. Enough is enough.").
One final note: Compounding the problems he exhibited in the district court, Maksym failed to file a reasonably coherent brief on appeal. All the deficiencies that plagued the various versions of the complaint also infected his briefs here. Maksym never directly addressed the issues before this court, relying instead on cases of marginal or no relevance. In the table of authorities in his opening brief, he cites 81 cases, but almost all of them are completely irrelevant to the issues presented here. In his reply brief, after the defendants had crystallized the issues, Maksym again failed to meaningfully—or even comprehensibly—articulate an argument. His appellate briefing was characterized by a reliance on irrelevant, conclusory, and often incoherent arguments of which the following is a representative example: "Plaintiffs claims were not `intelligible'—no `needle in a haystack' as Appellees' claim."
In short, Maksym's entire approach to this case was alarmingly deficient. For all the foregoing reasons, we hold that the district court was well within its discretion to deny leave to file the second amended