Second Circuit Clarifies Pleading Standard For Employment Discrimination Cases

In Littlejohn v. City of New York, No. 14-1395-CV, 2015 WL 4604250 (2d Cir. Aug. 3, 2015), the Second Circuit clarified the pleading standards applicable to employment discrimination claims.

Plaintiff, an African American woman, alleged that, while employed by the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, she was subjected to a hostile work environment and disparate treatment based on her race, and retaliated against because of complaints about such discrimination, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983 and that she was sexually harassed in violation of Title VII. The district court granted defendants’ motion under FRCP 12(b)(6) in its entirety, and dismissed plaintiff’s case. The Second Circuit vacated the order in part, and revived several of plaintiff’s claims.

The court discussed the interplay among various Supreme Court decisions relating to the propriety of the dismissal of an employment discrimination complaint under FRCP 12(b)(6), namely, McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green (1973), Swierkiewicz v. Sorema (2002), and  Ashcroft v. Iqbal (2009). Iqbal held that “[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face”.

The court addressed the question of “what, in the Title VII context, must be plausibly supported by factual allegations when the plaintiff does not have direct evidence of discriminatory intent at the outset”.

It held:

The discrimination complaint, by definition, occurs in the first stage of the litigation. Therefore, the complaint also benefits from the temporary presumption and must be viewed in light of the plaintiff’s minimal burden to show discriminatory intent. The plaintiff cannot reasonably be required to allege more facts in the complaint than the plaintiff would need to defeat a motion for summary judgment made prior to the defendant’s furnishing of a non-discriminatory justification. …

[A]bsent direct evidence of discrimination, what must be plausibly supported by facts alleged in the complaint is that the plaintiff is a member of a protected class, was qualified, suffered an adverse employment action, and has at least minimal support for the proposition that the employer was motivated by discriminatory intent. The facts alleged must give plausible support to the reduced requirements that arise under McDonnell Douglas in the initial phase of a Title VII litigation. The facts required by Iqbal to be alleged in the complaint need not give plausible support to the ultimate question of whether the adverse employment action was attributable to discrimination. They need only give plausible support to a minimal inference of discriminatory motivation.

Applying this standard, the court held that plaintiff’s allegations that she was replaced by a less-qualified white employee after her demotion “are more than sufficient to make plausible her claim that her demotion occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination.”

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