Sixth Circuit Affirms Dismissal of 108-Page Prisoner Complaint for Lack of Clarity Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 8

In Kensu v. Corizon, Inc., No. 21-1083 (6th Cir.July 20, 2021), the Sixth Circuit holds that the district court did not abuse its discretion by dismissing a complaint that it found was “woefully short on specifics,” “frequently connect[ed] back to conditions or complaints already litigated,” and “lack[ed] the substance needed for Defendants to answer and assert any pertinent affirmative defenses.”

Plaintiff Kensu, a prison inmate, had several actions pending against defendant Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), correctional-health-care contractor Corizon, and dozens of individual employees for inadequate medical care. When he filed the present case, it was assigned to the same judge who was hearing a related matter. “His original complaint had 808 numbered allegations—not counting suballegations—spanning 180 pages.” Twice the district court struck the plaintiff’s complaints for failing to present a “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). On the third go-around, the court dismissed the entire action with prejudice as a sanction.

The Eighth Circuit affirms. First, the panel holds that even though both parties urged de novo review by analogy to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), the correct appellate standard of review here was abuse of discretion. “Unlike determining whether factual allegations suffice to state a plausible claim, determining whether a complaint is plain or concise is not a legal question. It involves an understanding of the record that the district court is more familiar with than we are. And choosing the appropriate remedy involves the specifics of courtroom and docket management and assessing the right amount of patience to have for a particular plaintiff.”

Second, the panel observes that Rule 8 does not proscribe long complaints so much as it forbids “obfuscation of the plaintiff’s claims . . . . while excessive length may indicate a lack of requisite concision and simplicity, it cannot be the sole factor justifying dismissal.” Here, the panel holds, the current complaint was practically impossible to separate from his other pending actions. “Indeed, while Mr. Kensu purports to circumscribe his allegations by time, he still includes allegations that are from before July 2017 because he sues for allegedly deliberate indifference related to conditions that were not diagnosed until July 2017 or later. But that makes it hard to figure out which allegations are really at issue and which are background, especially for allegations that are undated.” Thus it was not an abuse of discretion to dismiss the complaints for lack of clarity.

Finally, while the panel holds that “the appropriate remedy” for a Rule 8 violation “is rarely immediate dismissal,” here the district court was best positioned to decide the dismissal sanction. “Mr. Kensu has demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to comply with the district court’s orders. His second amended complaint still retained pages of irrelevant and unspecific allegations. By focusing as he does now on the number of times that he mentioned each defendant’s name in the complaint or his inclusion of a table of contents, he demonstrates only that he utterly misses the district court’s point—that he has not made clear which claims and allegations this lawsuit was about. And the district court gave him fair warning that his second amended complaint would be his last chance. Although harsh, the sanction of dismissal with prejudice was within the district court’s discretion.”

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