Dismissal of Race Discrimination Case, and a Pleading Tutorial

In Williams v. Classic Security et al, 2019 WL 4511953 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 19, 2019), the court, inter alia, dismissed plaintiff’s employment discrimination claims. Plaintiff asserts claims under Title VII, the ADEA, and 42 U.S.C. 1981, which are all subject to the burden-shifting framework set out in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). The defendant moved to dismiss this claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim.

The court’s decision is instructive on how courts evaluate such claims at the pleading stage.

It explained:

With respect to the interplay between the McDonnell Douglas framework and the Twombly/Iqbal plausibility standard governing Rule 12(b)(6) motions, the Second Circuit has explained that “Iqbal’s requirement applies to Title VII complaints of employment discrimination, but does not affect the benefit to plaintiffs pronounced in the McDonnell Douglas quartet.” Littlejohn v. City of New York, 795 F.3d 297, 311 (2d Cir. 2015). This means that just as “the McDonnell Douglas temporary presumption reduces the facts a plaintiff would need to show to defeat a motion for summary judgment” at the first stage of the framework, so too does the “presumption … reduce[ ] the facts needed to be pleaded under Iqbal.” Id. In other words, to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion in the Title VII context, the facts “alleged in the complaint need not give plausible support to the ultimate question of whether the adverse employment action was attributable to discrimination,” but instead “need only give plausible support to a minimal inference of discriminatory motivation.” Id. The Second Circuit’s “decision in Littlejohn makes clear that a plaintiff is not required to plead a prima facie case under McDonnell Douglas, at least as the test was originally formulated, to defeat a motion to dismiss. Rather, … a plaintiff ‘need only give plausible support to a minimal inference of discriminatory motivation.’ ” Vega v. Hempstead Union Free Sch. Dist., 801 F.3d 72, 84 (2d Cir. 2015) (quoting Littlejohn, 795 F.3d at 311). …

At the pleading stage “in 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.”

Applying the law, the court held that plaintiff’s complaint did not “not include facts sufficient to support the inference that racial discrimination was a motivating factor behind Williams’s termination.” Plaintiff’s allegations, held the court, were conclusory and did not include requisite supporting facts.

Interestingly, the most instructive aspect of this decision is what, in the court’s view, was critically absent from plaintiff’s complaint, signifying what types of allegations it looks for when evaluating a complaint for pleading sufficiency:

Williams does not, for example, allege that his employers ever expressed any racial animus in their comments or statements to him, cf. Martin, 2018 WL 6510805, at *8–11 (dismissing Title VII claim where plaintiff had alleged racist statements by his employers because they were mere “stray comments”), nor does Williams provide any factual details regarding his allegation that other similarly situated employees of different races were treated differently than he was, cf. Hernandez v. City of New York, No. 11 Civ. 3521, 2013 WL 593450, at *5 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 13, 2013) (dismissing Section 1981 claim because “Plaintiff has alleged … that the Defendants treated similarly-situated non-Hispanic individuals more favorably than they treated Plaintiff” but “Plaintiff provides examples with little details about … the comparators”). As these and other cases show, see also, e.g., Khanna, 2019 WL 1428435, at *4, courts in this Circuit will dismiss race-based employment discrimination suits at the Rule 12(b)(6) stage even where a plaintiff pleads some facts relevant to showing discriminatory intent if those facts are too attenuated from the alleged adverse employment action. The key question is whether the plaintiff pleads facts sufficient to render plausible the minimal “motivating factor” inference needed to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.

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