In a recent case, the Fourth Circuit found that an employee’s retaliation claims against a former employer were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss (while dismissing the plaintiff’s discrimination allegations). This case may offer guidance to other employers regarding what to expect at the motion to dismiss stage of discrimination proceedings.
A motion to dismiss (or demurrer in Virginia state courts) argues that the allegations within a complaint should be dismissed because, even if everything alleged by the plaintiff is correct, the claims do not satisfy legal requirements.
Tutt v. Wormuth
In Tutt v. Wormuth, the Fourth Circuit determined whether Louis Tutt’s employment discrimination and retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should survive a motion to dismiss.
To establish a prima facie case for retaliation, a plaintiff must establish that (1) he engaged in protected activity; (2) the employer took an adverse action against him; and (3) there is “a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action.” The “causal connection” element is most commonly met by showing that the adverse action bears sufficient temporal proximity to the protected activity. If sufficient temporal proximity is lacking, courts may look to the intervening period for other evidence of retaliatory animus, including evidence of recurring retaliatory animus.
The court here determined that the 15-16 month gap between Tutt’s protected activity and his permanent reassignment was insufficient to establish causation based on temporal proximity and the gap “significantly weakens any inference of causation.” However, the court noted that Tutt also alleged his supervisors’ repeated comments regarding Tutt’s protected activity and other events occurring prior to the adverse action, that are sufficient to allege causation at the motion to dismiss stage. The court also stated that while there are potentially legitimate reasons for the defendant’s actions, at this stage, if a plaintiff’s explanation is plausible, the complaint survives a motion to dismiss, regardless of whether there is a more plausible alternative explanation. As such, the employer’s motion to dismiss was denied.
On the other hand, the court upheld the employer’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s Title VII discrimination claim. The court noted that a plaintiff is not required to plead facts that constitute a prima facie case to survive a motion to dismiss, but factual allegations must still be sufficient “to satisfy the elements of a cause of action” and raise the plaintiff’s “right to relief above the speculative level.” The court determined that, here, Tuff failed to plead sufficient facts to “nudge his claim of invidious discrimination across the line from conceivable to plausible, either through comparator evidence or other indicia of discrimination.”
What Does Tutt v. Wormuth Mean for Employers?
The court here didn’t discuss the underlying facts of the case or whether or not the plaintiff’ allegations were enough to ultimately satisfy the elements required for the claims. However, the court did discuss the plaintiff’s burden to survive a motion to dismiss. This can offer insight into how Fourth Circuit courts may rule on similar discrimination cases at the motion to dismiss stage. Considerations regarding likelihood of success at different stages of litigation may contribute to employers’ willingness to negotiate and settle or move forward with litigation. How courts have ruled in similar proceedings can act as a guidepost for other employers dealing with similar allegations.
While this case does not speak to whether or not this evidence would be sufficient at a later stage of the proceeding, it does offer guidance regarding what a court may decide at the motion to dismiss phase in future proceedings. The court’s dismissal of Tutt’s discrimination claim also reenforces the fact that employee allegations can’t be baseless and factual allegations must still be sufficient “to satisfy the elements of a cause of action.” Claims can’t be speculative and must “cross the line from conceivable to plausible.”
If you need more guidance or information, contact the employment law experts at General Counsel, PC today at 703-782-3266. Attorneys at General Counsel, PC are specialized in labor and employment law and have experience working with business owners and individuals across Virginia, specifically in Fairfax County, Arlington, Loudoun County, and Prince William.