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Second Circuit Clarifies Relaxed Pleading Requirements in Employment Discrimination Cases

    Two recent decisions out of the Second Circuit have relaxed the initial pleading requirements in employment discrimination cases brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, limiting opportunities for defendants to obtain early dismissal and potentially increasing the cost of defending cases in this jurisdiction.

    In Littlejohn v. City of New York, the Second Circuit considered the pleading requirements for a plaintiff alleging discrimination claims brought under Title VII.  Littlejohn v. City of New York, No. 14-1395-CV, 2015 WL 4604250 (2d Cir. Aug 3, 2015).  The District Court had granted the defendant employers’ 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss in its entirety on the grounds that the plaintiff had failed to adequately plead her discrimination claims.  After closely examining the pleading standards for Title VII discrimination claims, the Second Circuit reversed the District Court, clarifying that at the pleading stage, the plaintiff is not required to plead facts establishing a prima facie case.  Significantly, the Second Circuit held that a Title VII plaintiff satisfies the notice pleading standard of “plausibility” under the Supreme Court’s Iqbal decision simply by alleging “plausible support for a minimal inference of discriminatory motivation.”  In Iqbal, the Supreme Court held that a plaintiff must plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.”  Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 697 (2009).  The Second Circuit held that Iqbal’s “plausibility” standard applies to Title VII complaints for employment discrimination, but does not affect the minimal burden on plaintiffs at the initial phase of the McDonnell Douglas framework.  The Court explained, “absent 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.”

    In Vega v. Hempstead Union Free School District, the Second Circuit reiterated its earlier decision in Littlejohn, holding that in Title VII employment discrimination cases a plaintiff “need only give plausible support to a minimal inference of discriminatory motivation” at the initial pleading stage.  Vega v. Hempstead Union Free School District, et al., No. 14-2265 (2d Cir. Sept. 2, 2015).  The Court clarified that, “to defeat a motion to dismiss or a motion for judgment on the pleadings in a Title VII 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.”

    Littlejohn and Vega, taken together, clearly establish that plaintiffs in the Second Circuit asserting Title VII employment discrimination claims are held to a relaxed standard of pleading.  Thus, the likelihood of prevailing on a motion to dismiss is low, absent a discrete defense such as, for example, statute of limitations or failure to exhaust administrative remedies.  Further, making even a successful motion to dismiss may accomplish little more than providing the plaintiff an opportunity to amend the complaint to allege claims in a more persuasive fashion.  Accordingly, defendants must carefully consider this authority before making a motion to dismiss in a Title VII discrimination case in the Second Circuit and other jurisdictions that might follow this line of cases.

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