Wednesday, March 11, 2015

How do the Iqbal pleading rules affect a routine age discrimination case?

The Court of Appeals has sustained the dismissal of an age discrimination case for failure to state a claim under the Iqbal pleading standards. The decision sheds light on what the Court wants the complaints to look like.

The case is Bohnet v. Valley Stream Union Free School District, a summary order decided on February 27. The cocktail party version of this case would suggest the plaintiff was denied numerous teaching positions because of her age. The district court ruling says that from September 2006 through October 2011, plaintiff sought but was denied 18 different tenure-track positions. She alleges the district instead hired people younger than 40, some of whom did not have permanent teaching positions.

Under the Supreme Court's Iqbal decision (2009), plaintiffs have to allege plausible claims in order to survive a motion to dismiss and proceed to discovery. Alleging a possible claim is not enough. Iqbal ain't no cocktail party. I am sure the plaintiff's lawyer took Iqbal seriously, since counsel submitted a proposed amended complaint to get the case through the courthouse door. It was not enough.

The district court said plaintiff "alleges only that she applied for many positions in the District while she was over the age of forty and that the District did not hire her for those positions but hired younger individuals under the age of 40. These allegations lack the specificity required to be more than an unadorned, the defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." In particular, the district court said, plaintiff alleged no details about the people who were selected or their particular ages, so in theory the selectees could have been 38 years old, which would suggest no age discrimination at all. Nor did plaintiff allege that defendants knew plaintiff's age or the age difference between plaintiff and the other applicants when they made the hiring decisions. And, no one made any discriminatory comments to plaintiff or that other older applicants were denied appointments or that only younger folk are employed at the district.

The Court of Appeals (Parker, Hall and Livingston) affirms, reasoning that "absent greater specificity, Bohnet's factual allegations of age discrimination both in her original and proposed amended complaint are conclusory and stop short of the line between possibility and plausibility."

This decision tells us that when drafting a complaint, put in as much evidence as you can find to support your claims and to avoid a motion to dismiss. The complaint in this case said much about what happened to the plaintiff, in particular that she was denied 18 positions over a five year period and that younger people got the positions instead. These allegations may have been enough to proceed to discovery under the old pleading rules, but they are not enough under Iqbal.

No comments: