Pleading Requirements for Drafting Civil Complaints in Colorado Courts
In general, initiating a lawsuit requires the filing of a complaint to seek redress for a wrong done to the plaintiff. The contents of the complaint are important because it is the first pleading in the case and frames the issues that will be litigated as well as the type of relief the plaintiff will be entitled to. Specifically, in Colorado the rules of civil procedure require the contents of the complaint to include:
(1) A short and plain statement of the grounds upon which the court’s jurisdiction depends;
(2) A short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief; and
(3) A demand for judgment for the relief to which the pleader claims to be entitled.
See Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure (‘C.R.C.P.”) 8. Importantly, the demand for relief should not include a specific dollar amount but, instead, where damages are sought, should generally assert that the plaintiff is entitled to damages for each applicable claim.
Substantively, the main purpose of a complaint is put the defendant on notice of the “relief sought and the grounds thereof.” See Lyons v. Hoffman, 502 P.2d 980 (Colo. 1972). Accordingly, where the complaint provides a “generalized summary of the case that affords fair notice” to the defendant of the claims that will be at issue in the case, the complaint will be sufficient under the Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure. See Smith v. Mills, 225 P.2d 483 (Colo. 1950).
Similarly, the substance of the complaint rather than the specific relief requested is what determines whether a complaint adequately states a claim for relief. See Brown v. Central City Opera House Ass’n, 542 P.2d 86 (Colo. 1975). That is, where a complaint alleges sufficient facts to adequately put the defendant on notice of the claims at issue in the case, but the specific legal relief sought is incorrect, the complaint will still be sufficient and the case will be allowed to proceed. See Bridges v. Ingram, 223 P.2d 1051 (Colo. 1950).
However, while complaints are liberally construed, they still must meet minimum factual pleading requirements. That is, where a complaint fails to allege sufficient facts that would sustain a legal theory for relief, the complaint can be subject to a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Where a motion to dismiss is granted, the case will not be allowed to proceed. Colorado’s specific pleading standards for complaints are discussed further below.
Complaint Pleading Requirements under Warne v. Hall
While federal pleading requirements have, for some time, required that a complaint contain sufficient factual matter that a plausible claim for relief is stated, Colorado has only recently adopted this standard. See Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007); Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009); Warne v. Hall, 373 P.3d 588 (Colo. 2016)
Prior to the plausibility standard being adopted, pleading requirements were much more generous. Specifically, before the federal cases Twombly and Iqbal were decided; and in Colorado, before Warne v. Hall was decided; a complaint would be deficient and subject to dismissal only where it was clear that the plaintiff could prove no set of fact in support of her claim. See Warne v. Hall, 373 P.3d 588, 589 (Colo. 2016).
Notably, the “no set of facts” standard is significantly more deferential to the plaintiff than the “plausible claim for relief” standard. In essence, prior to Warne v. Hall, in Colorado a plaintiff did not need to allege facts that would give rise to a plausible claim for relief but, instead, would be allowed to maintain a claim where there was even a mere possibility that facts existed to sustain it, even if the existence of those facts was not plausible.
In contrast, now plaintiffs must include case-specific facts that are consistent with the asserted claim to prevent dismissal for failure to properly plead a claim. For example, a plaintiff asserting a breach of contract claim must explain exactly how the defendant breached the contract. Accordingly, specificity is key in drafting a complaint because, under the Warne v. Hall standard, vague claims are likely insufficient. Thus, for complaints filed in Colorado courts, the more case-specific facts that are alleged, the more likely a court will find that a claim is plausible.
Further, facts should not be phrased as legal conclusions. If a plaintiff brings a negligence claim, the complaint cannot merely assert that the defendant “acted negligently.” Additionally, for tort claims specifically requiring improper, wrongful, or intentional conduct; if the facts alleged are equally consistent with non-tortious conduct then the complaint will likely be found deficient. See Warne v. Hall, 373 P.3d 588, 596 (Colo. 2016). That is, improper, wrongful, or intentional conduct must be supported by specific facts demonstrating that the conduct was indeed improper, wrongful, or intentional; conclusory assertions will not suffice.
Overall, by avoiding legal standards in the factual assertions, plaintiffs can increase their likelihood that their complaint pleads a sufficient claim for relief. If the facts are not detailed or extensive enough to support a plaintiff’s assertions, the complaint may be dismissed. However, in many situations where a motion to dismiss is granted, plaintiffs will likely be given the opportunity to amend their complaint and include additional facts to make the claim for relief “plausible on its face,” assuming those facts exist.
Pleading Special Matters in Colorado
While C.R.C.P. 8 and Warne v. Hall generally govern complaint pleading requirements in Colorado, C.R.C.P. 9 imposes additional pleading requirements for particular causes of action. Specifically, C.R.C.P. 9 indicates that:
– Identification of Unknown Party. When a party is designated in the caption as one “whose true name is unknown” the pleader shall allege such matters as are within his knowledge to identify such unknown party and his connection with the claim set forth.
– Fraud, Mistake, Condition of the Mind. In all averments of fraud or mistake, the circumstances constituting fraud or mistake shall be stated with particularity. Malice, intent, knowledge, and other condition of mind of a person may be averred generally.
– Conditions Precedent. In pleading the performance or occurrence of conditions precedent, it is sufficient to aver generally that all conditions precedent have been performed or have occurred. A denial of performance or occurrence shall be made specifically and with particularity, and when so made the party pleading the performance or occurrence shall establish on the trial the facts showing such performance or occurrence.
– Official Document or Act. In pleading an official document or official act it is sufficient to aver that the document was issued or the act done in compliance with law.
– Special Damages. When items of special damage are claimed, they shall be specifically stated.
– Pleading Statute. In pleading a statute of Colorado or of the United States, the same need not be set forth at length, but it shall be sufficient to refer to such statute by the appropriate designation in the official or recognized compilation thereof, or otherwise identify the same, and the court shall thereupon take judicial knowledge thereof.
One of the more common circumstances where C.R.C.P. 9 applies is in claims containing elements of fraud or misrepresentation. Specifically, where a plaintiff alleges that the defendant made material fraudulent statements or misrepresentations, it will be insufficient to merely allege that the statements were false. Instead, the plaintiff must specifically set forth what is false by indicating what the true facts are. See Ginsberg v. Zagar, 251 P.2d 1080 (Colo. 1952).
Where only conclusory allegations are made, and no details regarding the alleged fraudulent activity are provided, the claims will not meet the heightened pleading requirements under C.R.C.P. 9 and will be subject to dismissal. In essence, fraud and misrepresentation claims should be specific enough that it is clear they only seek relief for a specific wrong that is reasonably believed to have occurred. That is, the facts alleged should demonstrate the plaintiff is seeking redress for a particular wrong, and not just generally trying to uncover one. See State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Parrish, 899 P.2d 285,
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