McCleary-Evans v. Md. Dep't of Transp., State Highway Admin.

Decision Date13 March 2015
Docket NumberNo. 13–2488.,13–2488.
Citation780 F.3d 582
PartiesDawnn McCLEARY–EVANS, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. MARYLAND DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, STATE HIGHWAY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant–Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

ARGUED:John Henry Morris, Jr., Law Office of John H. Morris, Jr., Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellant. DeNisha A. Watson, Office of the Attorney General of Maryland, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee. ON BRIEF:Douglas F. Gansler, Attorney General of Maryland, Office of the Attorney General of Maryland, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee.

Before NIEMEYER, WYNN, and DIAZ, Circuit Judges.

Opinion

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge NIEMEYER wrote the majority opinion, in which Judge DIAZ joined. Judge WYNN wrote a separate opinion dissenting in part.

NIEMEYER, Circuit Judge:

Dawnn McCleary–Evans commenced this action against the Maryland Department of Transportation's State Highway Administration, alleging that the Highway Administration failed or refused to hire her for two positions for which she applied because of her race (African American) and her sex (female), in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically 42 U.S.C. § 2000e–2(a)(1). In her complaint, she alleged that she was highly qualified for the positions, but that the decisionmakers were biased and had “predetermined” that they would select white candidates to fill the positions.

The district court granted the Highway Administration's motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), concluding that the complaint failed to allege facts that plausibly support a claim of discrimination. Because we agree that McCleary–Evans failed to include adequate factual allegations to support a claim that the Highway Administration discriminated against her because she was African American or female, we accordingly affirm. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) ([A] complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face’ (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) )).

I

McCleary–Evans worked for over 20 years as a project manager on environmental regulatory compliance projects while employed at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Transit Administration. In late 2009 and early 2010, she applied for two open positions in the Highway Administration's Environmental Compliance Division, interviewing first for a position as an assistant division chief and later for a position as an environmental compliance program manager. Despite her prior work experience and education, which she alleged made her “more than qualified” for the two positions, she was not selected for either position. Instead, as the complaint asserted, “The positions in question were filled by non-Black candidates.”

McCleary–Evans' claim that the Highway Administration did not hire her “because of the combination of her race and gender” relies essentially on two paragraphs of her complaint. In one, she alleged that her applications were “subject to a review panel significantly influenced and controlled by ... Gregory Keenan, a White male in the Office of Environmental Design (‘OED’) who worked under the supervision of OED Director, Sonal Sangahvi, a non-Black woman,” and that [d]uring the course of her interview, and based upon the history of hires within OED, ... both Keenan and Sangahvi predetermined to select for both positions a White male or female candidate.” In the other paragraph, she similarly alleged that, “although African American candidates had been among the selection pool,” “Keenan and Sangahvi, for reasons of race and gender, overlooked the African American candidates to select White male, preferably, and White female candidates.” In short, she claimed in conclusory fashion that the decisionmakers were biased when making the decision. And the complaint did not include any allegations regarding the qualifications or suitability of the persons hired to fill the two positions.

In dismissing her claim, the district court concluded that McCleary–Evans had failed to “allege facts that plausibly support a claim of discrimination.” The court reasoned that because this was a case with “no direct evidence of discrimination,” McCleary–Evans needed to allege facts sufficient to “state a prima facie case of discrimination for failure to hire by showing: (1) that she is a member of the protected class; (2) that the employer had an open position for which she applied or sought to apply; (3) that she was qualified for the position; and (4) that she was rejected under circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.” It noted that, while McCleary–Evans had sufficiently alleged the first three prongs of the prima facie case, she had not “stated facts sufficient to meet the pleading requirements as to the fourth prong.” Her complaint, the court said, “offer [ed] nothing to support her conclusory assertions [of discrimination] beyond an unsubstantiated mention of ‘a history of hires' within the division[ ] and statements identifying her race, the races of the two members of the hiring review panel, and the races of the two applicants hired for the positions.” The court concluded that, [b]ecause discrimination cannot be presumed simply because one candidate is selected over another candidate, McCleary–Evans ha[d] not pled adequate facts to give rise to a reasonable inference of discrimination.”

From the district court's order dismissing her complaint, McCleary–Evans filed this appeal.

II

McCleary–Evans contends that the district court imposed on her a pleading standard “more rigorous” than Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 122 S.Ct. 992, 152 L.Ed.2d 1 (2002), allows, by analyzing her claim under the standard set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973), for proving a prima facie case of discrimination. She maintains that the District Court's decision fails to demonstrate the deficiency of the Complaint as a pleading, but rather offers authority that only works as a challenge to demonstrate deficiency as evidentiary proof.” (Emphasis added).

In Swierkiewicz, the Supreme Court held that “an employment discrimination plaintiff need not plead a prima facie case of discrimination ... to survive [a] motion to dismiss,” 534 U.S. at 515, 122 S.Ct. 992, because [t]he prima facie case ... is an evidentiary standard, not a pleading requirement,” id. at 510, 122 S.Ct. 992, that may require demonstrating more elements than are otherwise required to state a claim for relief, id. at 511–12, 122 S.Ct. 992. The Court stated that requiring a plaintiff to plead a prima facie case would amount to a “heightened pleading standard” that would conflict with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2). Id. at 512, 122 S.Ct. 992. As the Court explained:

[I]t is not appropriate to require a plaintiff to plead facts establishing a prima facie case because the McDonnell Douglas framework does not apply in every employment discrimination case. For instance, if a plaintiff is able to produce direct evidence of discrimination, he may prevail without proving all the elements of a prima facie case.

Id. at 511, 122 S.Ct. 992. Accordingly, the Court concluded that “the ordinary rules for assessing the sufficiency of a complaint apply,” referring to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2). Id.

In light of Swierkiewicz, McCleary–Evans appropriately argues that the district court erred in its analysis by requiring her to plead facts establishing a prima facie case of discrimination to survive a motion to dismiss. But the district court's erroneous analysis in this case will not save the complaint if, under the “ordinary rules for assessing the sufficiency of a complaint,” Swierkiewicz, 534 U.S. at 511, 122 S.Ct. 992, it fails to state a plausible claim for relief under Title VII. See Coleman v. Md. Court of Appeals, 626 F.3d 187, 190 (4th Cir.2010) ([W]hile a plaintiff is not required to plead facts that constitute a prima facie case in order to survive a motion to dismiss, see Swierkiewicz , [f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level’ (citation omitted) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955 )).

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) “requires only a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the ... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). But this rule for pleading “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. Instead, a complaint must contain [f]actual allegations [sufficient] to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id.; see also Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (holding that a complaint “tender[ing] ‘naked assertion[s] devoid of ‘further factual enhancement’ does not “suffice” (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557, 127 S.Ct. 1955 )). The Supreme Court has accordingly held that Rule 8(a)(2) requires that “a complaint ... contain[ ] sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face’ in the sense that the complaint's factual allegations must allow a court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (emphasis added) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955 ); see also Coleman, 626 F.3d at 191 (finding a complaint inadequate because its allegations “fail[ed] to establish a plausible basis for believing ... that race was the true basis for [the adverse employment action]).

In her complaint, McCleary–Evans...

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