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By: R. Eddie Wayland, TCA General Counsel
A federal appeals court recently vacated the trial court’s dismissal of a female trucker’s employment discrimination claims, holding that the trucker pleaded facts sufficient to state plausible claims of employment discrimination.
Background of the Case
In 2006, a construction company hired a union female trucker (“Trucker”) for its Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania facility. She worked during construction seasons—normally from March or April until October or November of each year. During Trucker’s tenure with the company, the company employed seven union truck drivers at its Pittsburgh location. Trucker was ranked fifth in seniority and was the only woman.
Sometime after May 2007, and allegedly because Trucker had ended a romance with a man who also worked for the company, Trucker’s male co-workers began “cursing” at her and “belittling” her. Around May 2010, a company foreman made an unwanted physical advance to Trucker, which she rejected.
Trucker made many complaints to the company’s Ethics Line about her work environment. In October 2010, a company supervisor became “incensed” at Trucker when she refused to drive a truck that had a flat tire and steering problems. A short time later, and before any of the other union truck drivers, Trucker was laid off prior to the end of the construction season. Trucker was not recalled to work. The company did, however, recall Trucker’s male truck driver co-workers.
Trucker filed a lawsuit in Pennsylvania, alleging claims of gender-based disparate treatment, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The trial court dismissed her case because it found that Trucker’s complaint failed to allege sufficient facts to state plausible claims of employment discrimination. Trucker appealed.
The appeals court had to decide whether the trial court was incorrect in dismissing Trucker’s claims. To survive a motion to dismiss in federal court, a complaint must contain facts sufficient “to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.”
The court first took note of the elements Trucker must plead to state her claims. It is an unlawful employment practice for an employer “to discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” A plaintiff may make a claim for discrimination under federal law under either the “pretext” theory or the “mixed-motive” theory. In a mixed-motive case, the plaintiff claims that an employment decision was based on both legitimate and illegitimate reasons. In contrast, in a pretext case, the plaintiff claims that an employer’s stated justification for an employment decision is false. The trial court evaluated the complaint only under the pretext theory, proceeding “with a point-by-point consideration of the elements of a prima facie case required under a pretext theory.” The appeals court held that this was improper because the pleading standard “simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element[s].”
The court next considered whether the complaint set forth sufficient factual allegations to support Trucker’s claims. Regarding her disparate treatment claim, although the court discounted some of the allegations as conclusory, the remaining allegations were sufficient to state a plausible claim of disparate treatment. The court specifically noted four allegations in her complaint: (1) while working for the company, Trucker was the only female truck driver at the Pittsburgh facility; (2) she was qualified to drive all but one of the company’s trucks; (3) the company did not rehire her at the start of the 2011 construction season, despite recalling all of the male union truck drivers; and (4) since declining to rehire Trucker, the company has employed no other female truck drivers. These allegations, the court held, stated a claim of discrimination that was plausible on its face—in other words, the allegations were enough for Trucker’s disparate treatment claim to survive dismissal at this point in the litigation.
Regarding Trucker’s retaliation claim, the trial court dismissed the claim on the ground that there was no temporal proximity—that is, given the length of time between Trucker’s complaints of harassment and the company’s decision not to rehire her, Trucker failed to plead a causal connection between her complaints and the company’s failure to rehire her. The appeals court, however, found that the seasonal nature of Trucker’s work undermined the trial court’s conclusion. At any rate, the question of temporal proximity did not render Trucker’s retaliation claim facially implausible. Trucker alleged that, after she complained of a company foreman’s unwanted advances, and after overcoming a company supervisor’s resistance to her grievance by complaining directly to the Ethics Line, her relationship with her supervisors and male co-workers became “increasingly strained.” The court held that these allegations stated a plausible claim of retaliation. Accordingly, the court vacated the trial court’s dismissal of the complaint.
This case demonstrates why dismissing a lawsuit at an early stage of the case can prove challenging. Employers are often frustrated when an employee’s weak claim can survive an early challenge such as a motion to dismiss. Although an employee must include in his or her complaint sufficient facts to state a “plausible” claim to relief, employees are not required to plead specific legal theories. While involvement in employment-related lawsuits is sometimes unavoidable, the best advice is to take a proactive approach to addressing potential claims, including: a prompt, thorough investigation of allegations and corresponding remedial or other actions as necessary; strong, well-crafted policies that are appropriately and consistently enforced; and trained supervisors and managers who understand the company’s policies and timely report potential problems that need to be addressed. Such proactive measures should help prevent potential claims from becoming a viable lawsuit.
R. Eddie Wayland is a partner with the law firm of King & Ballow. You may reach Mr. Wayland at (615)726-5430 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. The foregoing materials, discussion and comments have been abridged from laws, court decisions, and administrative rulings and should not be construed as legal advice on specific situations or subjects.
February 16, 2016