Almost everyone directly involved in litigation has seen it.

Wheres the Beef

No, not a silhouette of a cow with fancy words plastered all over it. If you’ve had to defend a single lawsuit, you’ve probably seen a complaint that’s big on conclusions but lean on factual support.  Fortunately, complaints dependent upon speculation and bare conclusions have drawn increased scrutiny in recent years based on decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in cases such as Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly (“[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level”) and Ashcroft v. Iqbal (“[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice”).  Earlier this month, the Fourth Circuit – which covers West Virginia – dealt another blow to poorly pleaded complaints, and this time, the setting was an employment discrimination suit.

In Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals, Daniel Coleman, an African-American, sued his employer, the Maryland Court of Appeals, alleging various violations of Title VII and the FMLA that he alleged resulted in his unlawful discharge.  During his employment, Coleman – who had served as the executive director of procurement and contract administration – investigated a matter involving a female and a member of his staff, Larry Jones.  As a result of his investigation, Coleman suspended Jones for five days.  Coleman’s supervisors, James Broccolina (white) and Faye Gaskins (race unspecified), the latter of whom was related to Jones, reduced the suspension to one day.

Two years later in 2007, one day after Coleman sent a sick-leave request to Broccolina based upon a documented medical condition, Broccolina contacted Coleman and told him that he would be terminated if he didn’t resign.   Coleman refused, so Broccolina terminated him.  In claiming that his employer violated Title VII, Coleman alleged – among other things – that he was fired because of his race, was retaliated against for investigating Jones, and was discharged in violation of the FMLA.

The District Court dismissed Coleman’s claims, and the Fourth Circuit Court agreed.  The relevant portion of the Fourth Circuit’s opinion, however, was its determination that Coleman’s complaint failed to sufficiently establish the plausibility of his allegations to survive dismissal.  Specifically, the Fourth Circuit concluded that Coleman’s allegations of race discrimination did not rise above speculation because they failed to establish a plausible basis for believing that Coleman and Broccolina were similarly situated, “or that race was the true basis for Coleman’s termination.”

Moreover, the Court concluded that Coleman had failed to allege facts that his involvement in a protected activity prompted the purported retaliation, noting that the complaint did not explain why Coleman’s investigation of Jones was protected activity.  Consequently, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Coleman’s insufficiently pleaded Title VII discrimination and retaliation claims (and affirmed the dismissal of the FMLA claim on other grounds).

The Coleman decision serves as good precedent for employers in the Fourth Circuit because it will help combat less-than-meritorious lawsuits.  And with courts looking more and more unfavorably on complaints that just contain bare recitals, those employers who find themselves on the receiving end of a poorly pled employment discrimination or other related lawsuit now have precedent a lot closer to home to support an attempt to have those lawsuits dismissed early.

Matt Hansberry focuses his practice in the areas of employment litigation and ski-industry defense. Mr. Hansberry has defended companies and management in both federal court and state court cases. He has also defended employers before the West Virginia Human Rights Commission.
» See more articles by Matthew B. Hansberry
» Read the full biography of Matthew B. Hansberry at Steptoe & Johnson

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