Title VII Race, National Origin Discriminatory Termination Claims Survive Dismissal

In Murillo-Roman v. Pension Boards – United Church of Christ, Case No. 1:22-cv-08365 (JLR), 2024 WL 246018 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 23, 2024), the court, inter alia, held that plaintiff sufficiently alleged claims of employment discrimination.

The court discussed and applied the law as follows:

Plaintiff’s claims of race and national-origin discrimination under Title VII and Section 1981 are analyzed under the well-known burden-shifting framework articulated by the Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973); see, e.g., Buon v. Spindler, 65 F.4th 64, 78 (2d Cir. 2023); Baptiste v. City Univ. of N.Y., ––– F. Supp. 3d ––––, 2023 WL 4266914, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. June 29, 2023) (Section 1981). While Plaintiff must eventually establish a prima facie case of discrimination, a “prima facie case is an evidentiary standard, not a pleading requirement.” Buon, 65 F.4th at 79 (ellipsis omitted) (quoting Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 510 (2002)); see Vega v. Hempstead Union Free Sch. Dist., 801 F.3d 72, 84 (2d Cir. 2015) (“[A] plaintiff is not required to plead a prima facie case under McDonnell Douglas, at least as the test was originally formulated, to defeat a motion to dismiss.”). To defeat a motion to dismiss in a case alleging discrimination under these statutes, Plaintiff “must plausibly allege that (1) the employer took adverse action against h[er], and (2) h[er] race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor in the employment decision.” Vega, 801 F.3d at 87. “In other words, absent direct evidence of discrimination, what must be plausibly supported by facts alleged in the complaint is that the plaintiff is a member of a protected class, was qualified, suffered an adverse employment action, and has at least minimal support for the proposition that the employer was motivated by discriminatory intent.” Littlejohn v. City of New York, 795 F.3d 297, 311 (2d Cir. 2015); see Baptiste, 2023 WL 4266914, at *3 (similarly requiring a plaintiff at the motion-to-dismiss stage to plead “circumstances that give rise to a minimal inference of discrimination” for a Section 1981 claim).

As previously discussed, Plaintiff’s Title VII discrimination claim is timely only with respect to her termination on October 8, 2019. With respect to that adverse employment action, however, she has plausibly alleged “at least minimal support for the proposition that the employer was motivated by discriminatory intent.” Littlejohn, 795 F.3d at 311. Plaintiff alleged various acts by Huggins and Linzey that could be construed as part of an effort to push her out of the company: she was assigned a consistently punishing workload, FAC ¶ 80, deprived of information and other steps needed to complete assignments, id. ¶¶ 87, 94, intimidated into agreeing to an inaccurate evaluation of her performance, id. ¶¶ 107-113, 128, and subjected at least once to impossible expectations, id. ¶¶ 138-142. Huggins, as her direct supervisor, issued a steady stream of comments mocking Plaintiff’s accent. Id. ¶¶ 38, 54, 68, 80. Plaintiff’s subsequent complaints to human resources and company supervisors about discriminatory treatment because of her accent and skin color went largely unaddressed. Id. ¶¶ 27, 55, 57, 126-27. Against that backdrop, the Pension Boards’ termination of Plaintiff sufficiently raises an inference of discriminatory intent. See Littlejohn, 795 F.3d at 312 (noting that such an inference may be established by, among other things, “the employer’s criticism of the plaintiff’s performance in ethnically degrading terms … or the sequence of events leading to the plaintiff’s discharge” (citation omitted)); Sassaman v. Gamache, 566 F.3d 307, 314-15 (2d Cir. 2009) (“The failure of an employer to conduct an adequate investigation or to undertake an appropriate response can constitute evidence in support of a Title VII plaintiff’s allegations.”).

Defendants argue that Plaintiff’s Title VII discrimination claim fails because she did not identify similarly situated employees outside her protected group that the Pension Boards treated more favorably. Br. at 15. Such allegations, however, offer but one “recognized method” of raising an inference of discrimination. Ruiz v. County of Rockland, 609 F.3d 486, 493 (2d Cir. 2010) (citation omitted). In any event, Plaintiff also alleges that Huggins permitted Donald Spinelli, a white male co-worker of Plaintiff’s, to seek help from others in completing his assigned work.

The court concluded that, in light of the “totality of the relevant facts,” plaintiff adequately stated a discrimination claim under Title VII at the pleading stage.

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