Tuesday, July 3, 2012

6th Circuits provides much needed guidance on pleading standards

Today’s post is going to be a tad dry, for which I apologize. Its dryness, however, does not belittle the importance of the case I am going to discuss.

To file a lawsuit, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure merely require a plaintiff to state in his or her complaint “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” In Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal the Supreme Court defined what satisfies this requirement. A plaintiff must plead enough facts to raise a right to relief above mere speculation and from which a court can draw a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. In other words, one must be able to read the complaint and understand the specific misconduct that the plaintiff is alleging to be unlawful.

In discrimination cases, do these pleading standards require a plaintiff to specifically plead the elements of the discrimination claim under McDonnell Douglas, or is it sufficient for a plaintiff merely to allege facts that enable the court to infer discrimination?

In Keys v. Humana, Inc. (7/2/12) [pdf], the 6th Circuit reviewed the district court’s dismissal of a discrimination complaint because it had failed to allege facts that plausibly established a prima facie case under McDonnell Douglas. The 6th Circuit reversed, re-affirming that Twombly and Iqbal do not mandate the rote recitation of McDonnell Douglas’s prima facie elements:

The Amended Complaint contains allegations that are neither speculative nor conclusory; it alleges facts that easily state a plausible claim. The Amended Complaint alleges Humana had a pattern or practice of discrimination against African American managers and professional staff in hiring, compensation, promotion, discipline, and termination. It details several specific events in each of those employment-action categories where Keys alleges she was treated differently than her Caucasian management counterparts; it identifies the key supervisors and other relevant persons by race and either name or company title; and it alleges that Keys and other African Americans received specific adverse employment actions notwithstanding satisfactory employment performances.

If courts are not going to require plaintiffs to use McDonnell Douglas at the pleading stage, and instead focus on whether the complaint pleads a plausible claim of discrimination, is it time that we consider ending the charade that the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework is a useful tool? Why make litigants jump through imaginary hoops at the summary judgment stage, when we can all analyze the ultimate issue (was the adverse action discriminatory) just fine on our own?