The Third Circuit issues a solid reminder to judges that – notwithstanding the increased attention on filing “plausible” complaints under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 – federal courts do not require the pleading of legal theories. Thus, plaintiffs are not required to specify the method that they plan to use to prove discrimination cases in their Title VII complaints.
Connelly v. Lane Construction Corp., No. 14-3792 (3d Cir. Jan. 11, 2016): Connelly – a woman truck driver – alleges that, beginning in 2007, she was the subject of hostile comments and ostracism by the men, after a romantic relationship with a male co-worker went sour. After multiple complaints, the company suspended only the most serious offender, “but did not discipline or warn any other Lane employees, who continued to harass and disparage Connelly.”
Connelly continued to register complaints with the company in 2009 and 2010, until she was laid off “before the end of the construction season and before any of the other union truck drivers.” She was never recalled to work, while her male union co-workers with less seniority returned to work – and even non-union truck drivers were slotted.
Connelly filed a complaint alleging sex discrimination and retaliation under Title VII and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. The district court dismissed on the ground that had plaintiff had supposedly “failed to plead a sufficiently plausible inference that she was not rehired due to her gender” or retaliation.
The Third Circuit reverses. The panel holds that while Title VII law – for proof purposes – separates the world into “mixed-motive” and “pretext” cases, There was no need for the employee to specify which method she intended to use to prove her claim.
The panel generally describes the two, widely recognized methods of proof:
“Generally speaking, in a ‘mixed-motive’ case a plaintiff claims that an employment decision was based on both legitimate and illegitimate reasons. Such cases are in contrast to so-called ‘pretext’ cases, in which a plaintiff claims that an employer’s stated justification for an employment decision is false.”
The panel recognizes that the boundary between these categories is porous, and that “[under neither theory of discrimination, the plaintiff must establish that her protected status was a factor in the employer’s challenged action.”
The district court erred initially, holds the panel, by analyzing the discrimination complaint solely under the pretext method of proof. It “proceeded with point-by-point consideration of the elements of a prima facie case required under a pretext theory,” despite that the Supreme Court held in Swierkiewicz v. Sorema, N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 510 (2002), that the prima facie case is “an evidentiary standard, not a pleading requirement.”
The panel notes that while some of the plaintiff’s allegations might have been conclusory, and thus “disentitled to any presumption of truth” (example: that plaintiff’s supervisors “subjected her to disparate treatment based on her gender and retaliation for making complaints about discrimination and sexual harassment”), the remaining factual allegations supported an inference of sex discrimination and retaliation.
With respect to the discrimination claim, the panel holds that the following allegations supported her claim:
“(i) during her tenure at Lane, she was the only female truck driver at the Pittsburgh facility; (ii) she was qualified to drive all but one of Lane’s trucks; (iii) Lane failed to rehire her at the start of the 2011 construction season, despite recalling the six other union truck-drivers – all male, and two with less union seniority than Connelly; and (iv) since failing to rehire Connelly, Lane has employed no other female truck drivers.”
The panel also cites as further support the allegation that Lane “apparently deviated from its own past hiring norms and work assignments during the 2011 construction season by employing rental trucks and allowing a less senior driver to operate the tack [asphalt distributor] truck.”
On the retaliation complaint, the district court erred by concluding – based on the length of time between plaintiff’s complaints of harassment and layoff – that she could not prove causation. The “temporal proximity” argument (common in retaliation cases) here gives way to the novel facts of the case.
“Given the seasonal character of Connelly’s work, we question the District Court’s conclusion about temporal proximity. Because Lane only hired Connelly during construction seasons, traditionally laying workers off in October or November and then rehiring them in March or April of the following year, it may be that a retaliatory decision to not rehire her would not become apparent until after the off-season that ran from October 2010 to March 2011.”
The panel holds, addition ally, that the plaintiff alleged facts which – if credited by a jury – would show that plaintiff’s relationship with her supervisors deteriorated from the very beginning, when she first went over their heads to corporate about unwanted propositioning by a co-worker. When she complained “directly to the Ethics Line, her relationship with both her supervisors and male co-workers became ‘increasingly strained’ throughout the year.”
Finally, although the complaint allowed a different inference – that Lane continued to hire plaintiff for four years after her first complaint – “[w]e must adhere to the requirement that all alleged facts be construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, which, if done, permits the view that gender discrimination was a motivating factor or determinative factor in the decision not to recall Connelly in 2011.”