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4th Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Retaliation Claims Based on Twombly

Published by on December 28, 2009

In a recent unpublished opinion (Harman v. Unisys Corp.), the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of an employee’s retaliation claims against her employer.  The plaintiff, Kathryn Harman, brought suit against Unisys Corporation and several employees, alleging gender, age, and race discrimination and retaliation, as well as violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  […]

In a recent unpublished opinion (Harman v. Unisys Corp.), the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of an employee’s retaliation claims against her employer.  The plaintiff, Kathryn Harman, brought suit against Unisys Corporation and several employees, alleging gender, age, and race discrimination and retaliation, as well as violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  More after the break.

On the defendant’s motion to dismiss, the district court had dismissed all of the claims with the exception of the FLSA claim.  After a jury trial, a verdict was rendered in favor of the employer, and the plaintiff appealed.  On appeal, Harman argued that the district court had erred in dismissing her discrimination and retaliation claims. 

The court of appeals began its analysis by stating that the standard for surviving a motion to dismiss is to state a “plausible claim for relief that permits the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct.”  The court found that the district court had properly dismissed Harman’s disparate treatment claims as she had alleged mere conclusory allegations that failed to establish that she suffered an adverse employment action.  The court held, however, that the district court had improperly dismissed the retaliation claims.  Although the court found that the complaint contained “numerous irrelevant allegations”, the court stated that Harman should have been allowed to amend her complaint with regards to the retaliation claims. 

The case is primarily of interest as an example of the court of appeals reversing a 12(b)(6) dismissal based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007).  The case was the subject of Congressional hearings in December 2009 as the perception is that recent Supreme Court decisions have made it easier for the courts to dismiss civil rights cases at the pleadings stage.  Workplace Prof Blog has a short post on the hearings hereEarly commentary on the decision in 2007 asked whether the case sounded the “death-knell” for notice pleading in federal court.

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