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Wooten v. McDonald Transit Assoc, Inc., No. 13-11035 (5th Cir. June 10, 2015)

The Fifth Circuit reverses its beginning-of-the-year, 2-1 decision in Wooten, now holding (3-0) that the plaintiff's complaint - while "admittedly light on factual details" - was sufficient under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 to state a claim of discrimination and retaliation under the ADEA. Thus, the complaint was sufficient to support entry of default judgment against a non-appearing employer.

Wooten v. McDonald Transit Assoc, Inc., No. 13-11035 (5th Cir. June 10, 2015): This blog covered the original panel decision [January 5, 2015], summarizing the facts as follows:

In his complaint, plaintiff Wooten alleged that he was a former employee of McDonald Transit, where he had worked from 1999 until May 1, 2011. The ADEA retaliation claim stated as follows:

"In October 2010, [Wooten] made a claim to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for age discrimination. After the claim was made and continuing until [his] employment ended, [McDonald Transit], in violation of the ADEA, discriminated and retaliated against [Wooten], and created a hostile work environment, until such time that plaintiff was constructively discharged on or about May 1, 2011."

The complaint was reportedly served on McDonald Transit's registered agent, but not answered.

The district court held a prove-up hearing, where Wooten testified that after filing an EEOC charge, "he was demoted from Shop Foreman, lowering his pay by $2 an hour. He was given menial work, and his hours were changed." The district court entered default judgment under Rule 55. The employer then sought to vacate judgment under Rules 55 and 60, which was denied.

The Fifth Circuit affirms. In the original panel opinion, the majority held that Wooten's complaint did not meet the "well-pleaded" standard required by Rule 55 (and Rule 12(b)(6), as well) and could not support a default judgment. "His few factual allegations," the majority concludes, "are inextricably bound up with legal conclusions (e.g., 'discriminated and retaliated' and 'created a hostile work environment' leading to 'constructive[] discharge')," and simply "parrot[s]" the language of the ADEA. The panel majority also held that while Wooten's prove-up testimony stated an ADEA claim, the pleadings could not be supplemented by later hearing testimony under Rule 55.

On rehearing, the panel avoids the Rule 55 issue - which presented an unresolved issue under Fifth Circuit law - by holding that its original premise was wrong. It holds that Wooten's complaint constituted a short and plain statement of an ADEA violation.

[As before, the panel werestles with whether an ADEA plaintiff should be required to prove, as an element of the prima facie case, that he was qualified for his position, citing Holtzclaw v. DSC Commc'ns Corp., 255 F.3d 254, 259 (5th Cir. 2001). whether this authority was impliedly overruled by the intervening Burlington NorThern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006), the panel holds "[w]e need not decide ... because-as explained below-we hold that Wooten's complaint satisfies the minimal pleading requirements of Rule 8 regardless of whether 'qualification' is a necessary element of his prima facie case."]

The panel notes that notice of a claim to the defendant for purposes of Rule 55 is informed by the Rule 8 pleading standard. It holds, after an analysis of the complaint, that "Wooten's complaint provides McDonald Transit with 'fair notice' of his claim that McDonald Transit engaged in conduct prohibited by the ADEA-discrimination and retaliation-in response to the age-discrimination charge he filed with the EEOC."

The panel does not necessarily hold Wooten's complaint out as a model of pleading - it "could have specified the nature of the discrimination and the retaliation he experienced" - but at the same time "his allegations are not so vague that McDonald Transit lacked notice of the contours of Wooten's claim." Indeed, it notes that Form 11 of the "Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide even less factual detail than the complaint at issue here."

The panel closes by holding that McDonald Transit failed to present grounds for vacating the judgment under Rules 55 and 60.

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