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Colorado Supreme Court Conforms Pleading Standard to Federal Practices

By Dean Shaffer

The Colorado Supreme Court today, in Warne v. Hall, Case No. 14SC176, adopted the stricter civil pleading standard first applied by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). Under the new standard, Colorado courts may dismiss claims that are not “plausible,” meaning that plaintiffs must support their claims with factual allegations sufficient to “raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id.

The new standard puts a much heavier burden on plaintiffs to allege factual matter. For over fifty years prior to the Warne decision, Colorado courts would dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim only where “it appear[ed] beyond doubt that the plaintiff [could] prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.” Warne, Case No. 14SC176.

In dismissing the Warne complaint, which the court of appeals previously held complied with the old standard, the Colorado Supreme Court illustrated the impact of this change in the law. In Warne, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant, a mayor, had tortiously interfered with the plaintiff’s contract to sell land to a third party by, prior to closing of the transaction, wrongfully imposing conditions on the third party’s use of the property. Id. The Court found that the plaintiff failed to allege sufficient facts to make plausible the plaintiff’s allegations that the mayor’s actions were motivated by personal animosity because those actions were equally consistent with proper conduct. Id. By contrast, the court of appeals, applying the “no set of facts” standard, ruled sufficient the plaintiff’s allegations that the mayor acted out of malice. Id.

The replacement of a standard applied in Colorado courts for half a century inevitably will entail additional uncertainty due to the lack of Colorado case law interpreting the new standard. Nevertheless, the Warne decision reduces the seriousness of this concern by emphasizing the benefits of harmonizing the rules of civil procedure in Colorado and federal courts. In accordance with this stated goal, Colorado courts following Warne may exhibit willingness to consider precedent from federal courts applying Twombly.

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