Sparrow v. United Air Lines, 99-7165

Decision Date27 June 2000
Docket NumberNo. 99-7165,99-7165
Parties(D.C. Cir. 2000) Victor H. Sparrow, III, Appellant v. United Air Lines, Inc., et al.,Appellees
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — District of Columbia Circuit

[Copyrighted Material Omitted] Appeal from the United States District Courtfor the District of Columbia(No. 98cv02194)

Victor H. Sparrow, III, appearing pro se, argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellant.

Jeffrey S. Piell argued the cause for appellees. With him on the brief were Gary A. Orseck and Andrew A. Nicely.

Before: Edwards, Chief Judge, Randolph and Garland, Circuit Judges.

Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge Garland.

Garland, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiff Victor H. Sparrow, III worked for United Air Lines for three years before being terminated in 1997. On September 15, 1998, he sued his former employer on a number of grounds, including alleged racial discrimination in employment. In lieu of an answer, United filed a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), asking the district court to dismiss plaintiff's action for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted."The court granted the motion, holding that plaintiff's complaint had failed to "make out a prima facie case of discrimination." Sparrow v. United Airlines, Inc., No. 98-2194, slip op. at 17 (D.D.C. July 22, 1999). Because a plaintiff need not set forth the elements of a prima facie case at the initial pleading stage, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.


Sparrow's amended complaint included a plethora of charges against United, ranging from breach of contract to violation of various state laws. The district court dismissed the complaint in its entirety, and, in an earlier opinion, this court affirmed as to all claims other than those alleging "discriminatory discharge and failure to promote under 42 U.S.C. § 1981." Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., No. 99-7165 (D.C. Cir. Dec. 21, 1999).1 We review de novo the district court's dismissal of the remaining claims under Rule 12(b)(6). See, e.g., Croixland Properties Ltd. v. Corcoran, 174 F.3d 213, 215 (D.C. Cir. 1999). In so doing, we must treat the complaint's factual allegations as true, see Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence and Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 164 (1993), and must grant plaintiff "the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged," Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979). See Croixland Properties, 174 F.3d at 215.2


The district court dismissed Sparrow's employment discrimination claims on the ground that "[p]laintiff cannot make out a prima facie case of discrimination." Sparrow, slip op. at 17. "Specifically," the court said, "plaintiff has not pointed to any similarly situated employees who were given preferential treatment over him." Id. Moreover, "even assuming that plaintiff could meet the elements of a prima facie case, he has offered no evidence to demonstrate that [United's] reasons for firing him were pretextual." Id.

It is true that under the familiar McDonnell Douglas framework for proving unlawful discrimination:

First, the plaintiff has the burden of proving by thepreponderance of the evidence a prima facie case ofdiscrimination. Second, if the plaintiff succeeds in prov-ing the prima facie case, the burden shifts to the defen-dant "to articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatoryreason for the employee's rejection." Third, should thedefendant carry this burden, the plaintiff must then havean opportunity to prove by a preponderance of theevidence that the legitimate reasons offered by the de-fendant were not its true reasons, but were a pretext fordiscrimination.

Texas Dep't of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 252-53 (1981) (quoting McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973)) (citations omitted); see Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., 68 U.S.L.W. 4480, 4482 (U.S. June 12, 2000). It is also true that "[t]o establish a prima facie case under the McDonnell Douglas framework, [a plaintiff] must demonstrate (1) that she is a member of a protected class; (2) that she was similarly situated to an employee who was not a member of the protected class; and (3) that she and the similarly situated person were treated disparately."Holbrook v. Reno, 196 F.3d 255, 261 (D.C. Cir. 1999).3

None of this, however, has to be accomplished in the complaint itself. Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a claim need only contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief."Rule 8(e)(1) states that "[e]ach averment of a pleading shall be simple, concise, and direct. No technical forms of pleading or motions are required." And Rule 8(f) instructs that "[a]ll pleadings shall be so construed as to do substantial justice."In Conley v. Gibson, the Supreme Court interpreted these rules to mean that "a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957).The Court went on to hold that

the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not require a claimant to set out in detail the facts upon which he bases his claim. To the contrary, all the Rules require is"a short and plain statement of the claim" that will give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.... Such simplified"notice pleading" is made possible by the liberal opportunity for discovery and the other pretrial procedures established by the Rules to disclose more precisely the basis of both claim and defense and to define more narrowly the disputed facts and issues.

Id. at 47-48 (citations omitted).

The grounds for the district court's dismissal of Sparrow's complaint are inconsistent with Rule 8 and Conley. Sparrow did not have to "make out a prima facie case of discrimination" in his complaint, specifically point to "similarly situated employees who were given preferential treatment over him," or offer "evidence to demonstrate that [United's] reasons for firing him were pretextual." Sparrow, slip op. at 17.4 To the contrary "[c]omplaints 'need not plead law or match facts to every element of a legal theory.' " Krieger v. Fadely, 211 F.3d 134, 136 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (quoting Bennett v. Schmidt, 153 F.3d 516, 518 (7th Cir. 1998)); see Caribbean Broad. Sys., Ltd. v. Cable & Wireless PLC, 148 F.3d 1080, 1086 (D.C. Cir. 1998) ("[A] plaintiff need not allege all the facts necessary to prove its claim."); Atchinson v. District of Columbia, 73 F.3d 418, 421-22 (D.C. Cir. 1996) ("A complaint ... need not allege all that a plaintiff must eventually prove ...."); Sinclair v. Kleindienst, 711 F.2d 291, 293 (D.C. Cir. 1983) ("The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not require a claimant to set out the precise facts on which the claim is based.... 'Notice pleading' is sufficient.").

Nor are discrimination or other civil rights complaints different in this regard. Conley itself involved a class action by African-American railroad clerks who alleged that their union had breached its duty of fair representation by discriminating against them in violation of their rights under the Railway Labor Act, 45 U.S.C. §§ 151 et seq. In reversing the dismissal of the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court rejected defendant's argument that dismissal was proper because "the complaint failed to set forth specific facts to support its general allegations of discrimination." Conley, 355 U.S. at 47. Thiry-five years later, in Leatherman v. Tarrant County, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the continuing vitality of Conley, rejecting the suggestion that a " 'heightened pleading standard'--more stringent than the usual pleading requirements of Rule 8(a)" should apply in civil rights cases brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. 507 U.S. at 164; see id. at 167-68 (citing Conley, 355 U.S. at 47).

This court has followed the Supreme Court's lead. In Atchinson, for example, we reversed the dismissal of a complaint alleging that a municipality had violated a plaintiff's civil rights by failing to train or supervise its police officers. See 73 F.3d at 419. Citing Conley and Leatherman, we rejected the district court's conclusion that plaintiff's complaint was deficient because it "failed to identify a specific custom, policy statement, or procedure that caused his injuries," and otherwise "failed to state facts supporting" its allegations. Id. at 422. It was enough, we said, that plaintiff "alleg[ed] that [the police officer] shot him in broad daylight on a city street so quickly after [plaintiff] was ordered to 'freeze.' " Id.

In sum, we agree with the conclusion reached by Judge Easterbrook in Bennett: "Because racial discrimination in employment is 'a claim upon which relief can be granted,'....'I was turned down for a job because of my race' is all a complaint has to say" to survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). Bennett, 153 F.3d at 518; see Krieger, 211 F.3d at 136 (citing Bennett with approval).


Plaintiff's complaint readily meets the standard of Conley and its progeny. Count Five5 expressly states that it "is founded upon 42 United States Code § 1981 for a disparate and discriminatory application by the Defendants of the personnel, compensation, and termination policies of Defendant United because of his race." Compl. p 76. It goes on to charge that the "discriminatory, offensive, and invidious treatment which the Plaintiff has experienced" was "motivated and predicated in principal part by a pervasive distaste for the racial ethnicity of the Plaintiff." Id. p 77. And, in words that presage the district court's own decision concerning the requirements of a prima facie case, it alleges that "a similarly situated male Caucasian United States citizen employee of defendant United would not have...

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