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Second Cir Clarifies Pleading Reqs in Employment Discrim Cases

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Every first year law student is familiar with the pleading requirements established by Iqbal v. Ashcroft. Under Iqbal, a complaint must make facially plausible factual allegations that the defendant is liable for misconduct. For some, Iqbal is a betrayal of permissive pleading requirements; for others, it is a necessary protection against meritless litigation.

That holding has been in tension with previous Supreme Court rulings on employment discrimination. Under those precedents, only minimal evidence "suggesting an inference" of discrimination is needed in pleadings. The Second Circuit attempted to reconcile those precedents, holding that Iqbal applies to employment discrimination complaints but does not affect the benefits of the doubt given to plaintiffs by other precedent.

Which Case Controls in Employment Discrimination Pleadings?

The court had opportunity to address this tension after Dawn Littlejohn sued the City of New York for a discriminatory demotion, hostile work environment, retaliation and sexual harassment, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and 42 U.S.C. sections 1981 and 1983. Littlejohn, a black woman, worked initially as a director in the City's Equal Employment Opportunity Office. Her white managers repeatedly diminished her, boxed her out of decision making, subjected her to increased scrutiny, etc. She was then transferred to another division where her new supervisor sexually harassed her.

When Littlejohn sued, the City moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Iqbal and the district court tossed her complaint. On appeal, the Second Circuit reversed in part, holding that Littlejohn was entitled to the benefits of McDonnell Douglas and associated cases -- "the McDonnell Douglas quartet" -- which "deviate from customary prima facie rules."

McDonnell Douglas Reduces Iqbal Requirements

The Iqbal ruling is broad, the Second Circuit notes, applying to pleadings general, not just in specific types of cases. But it is not broad enough that it wipes away earlier employment discrimination precedents. Under Swierkiewicz, the Supreme Court said that pleadings do not have to establish a prima facie case and must only give "fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests."

That ruling must be coupled with the McDonnell Douglas quartet, the Second Circuit explained. That quartet includes Burdine, Hicks, Reeves and establishes the burden shifting process of an employment discrimination case, requiring only "minimal evidence" at the beginning. Balancing the quartet and Swierkiewicz with Iqbal, the court ruled:

We conclude 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. To the same extent that the McDonnell Douglas temporary presumption reduces the facts a plaintiff would need to show to defeat a motion for summary judgment prior to the defendant's furnishing of a non-discriminatory motivation, that presumption also reduces the facts needed to be pleaded under Iqbal.

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