Court Provides Guidance on Pleading Employment Discrimination Claims

In Lehman v. Bergmann Associates (decided March 31, 2014), the Western District of New York held that plaintiff adequately pleaded some, but not other, employment discrimination claims. The case provides a good review of federal pleading standards for various employment-related claims.

Plaintiff alleged that she was the first woman to hold a senior management position at engineering and architectural firm Bergmann Associates, but “that it remained a male-dominated environment where she encountered sex-based discrimination.”

She alleged that defendant violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by creating a hostile work environment and by retaliating against her for filing charges of discrimination. She also alleges that defendant violated the federal and New York Equal Pay laws by paying her a wage lower than that of comparable men.

Defendant moved to dismiss on the ground that plaintiff failed to state a claim for relief. The court analyzed whether plaintiff’s complaint contained “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.”

The court dismissed plaintiff’s constructive discharge claim, finding that plaintiff failed to meet the “high standard” such a claim demands:

Taking Lehman’s allegations as true, Bergmann forced her to take a less prestigious position, awarded her one lower bonus, and occasionally ostracized her from important corporate decisions. Simply put, these facts do not give rise to a reasonable inference that Lehman was compelled to resign. It is not enough that a reasonable person would have preferred not to continue working for that employer.

It also held that plaintiff adequately alleged that the placement on a “Performance Improvement Plan”, or “PIP”, was sufficiently “adverse” for purposes of her retaliation claim:

Lehman alleges that the PIP unjustly criticized her; that she was the only upper-level supervisor to be given a PIP; and that the PIP was an act of discipline. This Court finds that these allegations sufficiently raise a plausible inference that, by being placed on PIP, there may have attached pecuniary injury or the sort of non-monetizable, yet still actionable, harm resulting from the loss of prestige or professional opportunity. As Bergmann concedes, negative performance evaluations or ratings may, in some circumstances, constitute adverse employment actions if they trigger negative consequences to the conditions of employment. Here, Lehman received her lowest bonus—an undisputed “condition of employment”—just a few weeks after being placed on the PIP.

However, it held, with respect to plaintiff’s claim that she suffered a retaliatory promotion denial, that plaintiff failed to “allege, as she must, that she complained to Mitchell that she was being discriminated against because of her sex.” (Emphasis added.) Specifically:

[Plaintiff] apparently asks that this Court assume that Mitchell assumed that she was complaining of sex discrimination based on the simple fact that she was the only female manager or director. But the onus is on the speaker to clarify to the employer that [s]he is complaining of unfair treatment due to h[er] membership in a protected class and that [s]he is not complaining merely of unfair treatment generally. Indeed, [t]he plaintiff must complain of discrimination in sufficiently specific terms so that the employer is put on notice that the plaintiff believes he or she is being discriminated against on the basis of race, gender, national origin, or any other characteristic protected by Title VII.

The court also held that plaintiff adequately alleged a hostile work environment claim. It noted that “incidents that are facially sex-neutral may sometimes be used to establish a course of sex-based discrimination.” In particular:

[N]ot only has Lehman alleged that the treatment she received was because of her sex, but she adds heft to that allegation by pleading that her manager, Tom Mitchell, had expressed sex-based animus in the past. Indeed, [c]ircumstantial evidence that facially sex-neutral incidents were part of a pattern of discrimination on the basis of gender may consist of evidence that the same individual engaged in multiple acts of harassment, some overtly sexual and some not. Lehman alleges here that Mitchell referred to Short, a woman, as the “marketing bitch” and that Mitchell told Short she would never advance in the hierarchy of the firm “because she was a woman.” That this happened to someone else is, for these purposes, inconsequential; the allegation tends to show that Mitchell harbored a bias against women in the workplace, and that, in turn, lends plausibility to the assertions that Lehman was subjected to harsh treatment because she is a woman.

Finally, the court dismissed plaintiff’s Equal Pay Act claims, holding that plaintiff “alleges no facts relative to the conclusion that men were paid more than women” and “no substance to the assertion that … [her] male counterparts … had comparable performance and responsibilities.” It noted that courts have routinely dismissed EPA claims that did not include, for example, specific facts as to how a plaintiff’s position was comparable or substantially similar and what responsibilities they shared.

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