Second Circuit Revives Discrimination Claims Against School District; Discusses Title VII Pleading Standards for Discrimination and Retaliation Claims

In Carter v. Syracuse City School District, No. 15-2395, 2016 WL 3671631 (2d Cir. July 11, 2016) (Summary Order), an employment discrimination case, the Second Circuit vacated the district court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s discrimination and retaliation claims.

Initially, the court held that the District Court incorrectly dismissed plaintiff’s State Human Rights Law claim because plaintiff failed to comply with the notice of claim provisions, reasoning that “these requirements do not apply to a plaintiff’s lawsuit alleging claims under the NYSHRL.”

It then explained the recently-clarified standard governing pleading of Title VII employment discrimination claims in federal court:

[I]n an employment discrimination case, a plaintiff must plausibly allege that (1) the employer took adverse action against him and (2) his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor in the employment decision. In other words, at the pleadings stage, a plaintiff must allege that the employer took adverse action against her at least in part for a discriminatory reason, and she may do so by alleging facts that directly show discrimination or facts that indirectly show discrimination by giving rise to a plausible inference of discrimination.

Applying the law to the facts, the court concluded:

[T]he District Court applied the incorrect legal standard in evaluating Carter’s discrimination claim, as Carter was not required at the pleadings stage to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. Further, we conclude that Carter’s proposed amended complaint, when drawing all reasonable inferences in her favor, as we must, pled sufficient facts that plausibly established that she suffered an adverse employment action based at least in part on a discriminatory reason. Carter’s proposed amended complaint pled, for instance, that “a sham evaluation of [her] performance” was conducted by Vice Principal Stewart, which resulted in Carter being “placed on an ‘assistance plan’ ” and rendered her “ineligible to participate in such programs as ‘Master Teacher[,]’ causing her a loss of income.” Carter alleged further that she complained about the negative evaluation she received to Vice Principal Benjamin Frazier, who “told her that the adverse treatment was due to her race and gender.” It is beyond cavil that a “loss of income” qualifies as an adverse employment action, as does an employer’s failure to promote. … Assuming Carter’s factual allegations as true, and when drawing all reasonable inferences in her favor, we conclude that she has plausibly alleged facts sufficient to state a claim for discrimination under Title VII. Accordingly, we vacate so much of the District Court’s judgment as dismisses Carter’s Title VII discrimination claim against the School District asserted in Count 1 of Carter’s proposed amended complaint.

As to plaintiff’s retaliation claim, the court explained that Title VII’s “antiretaliation provision, unlike the substantive provision, is not limited to discriminatory actions that affect the terms and conditions of employment … [and that] [t]he proper assessment is to determine, from the perspective of a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position, whether the alleged retaliatory acts are likely to dissuade employees from complaining or assisting in complaints about discrimination.”

Plaintiff’s complaint met this standard:

[T]he District Court erred in requiring that Carter establish a prima facie case of Title VII retaliation at the pleadings stage. We further conclude that the facts in the proposed amended complaint are sufficient to plausibly allege a claim of retaliation under Title VII. Carter alleged that, “on or about April 27, 2009, [she] filed a complaint of discrimination with the [NYSDHR], which is a protected activity. … Carter further alleged that, following the filing of her complaint of discrimination with the NYSDHR, she made a request to the School District, through her treating physician, that she be “relocate [d] … to another school,” which she insisted could have been done “without difficulty and would have [been] done … had [Carter] not complained of discrimination,” because “a faculty member’s request for a transfer [was] typically honored.” The adverse-employment-action inquiry for a retaliation claim has a much lower bar than for a Title VII claim of discrimination. We cannot say at the pleadings stage, as a matter of law, that, from the perspective of a reasonable person in Carter’s position, she would not have been dissuaded from filing her discrimination complaint with the NYSDHR if she knew that as a result thereof she would be denied a request for transfer to a different school, away from those co-workers she claims caused her work-related stress condition and required her to take leave and seek medical treatment.

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