To survive the early stages of litigation in federal court, you need to ensure your complaint not only alleges facts that, if proven true, would support a legal cause of action, but that present a plausible claim for relief. While you are far more likely to win your case at trial if you are represented by an attorney, one of the few situations in which your task may be easier without a lawyer is surviving an initial motion to dismiss. This is because the United States Supreme Court has held expressly that a “pro se” plaintiff (i.e., a litigant not represented by a lawyer) must be held to less stringent standards than those who have legal representation and are more familiar with the rules of formal pleadings.
Michael Bogan is representing himself in a Title VII employment-discrimination action against The Roomstore in Richmond, Virginia. Judge Henry E. Hudson recently denied The Roomstore’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, finding that Mr. Bogan alleged “scant but marginally sufficient” factual allegations to support a claim for discriminatory discipline, an employment practice prohibited by federal employment laws. Had an attorney drafted the complaint, the result might have been different.
Mr. Bogan, an African-American, alleges that his Caucasian supervisor at The Roomstore demanded that he undergo a drug test even though a similarly situated white employee was not required to submit to the test. He claimed the white employee was involved in illegal activity and had missed several days of work. The complaint alleges that The Roomstore terminated his employment for refusing to submit to the test.
Mr. Bogan did not identify which form of employment discrimination he was relying on, so the court gave him the benefit of the doubt and analyzed his claim under the two most likely theories, disparate treatment and discriminatory discipline.
To properly state a claim for disparate treatment, a plaintiff must allege facts demonstrating that: (1) he is a member of a protected class; (2) he has satisfactory job performance; (3) he was subjected to adverse employment action; and (4) similarly situated employees outside his class received more favorable treatment. Mr. Bogan failed to sufficiently plead this theory because he had not pled any facts to support that his job performance was satisfactory.
However, Judge Hudson found that Mr. Bogan did sufficiently plead discriminatory discipline. For that theory, it is necessary to allege: (1) he is a member of a protected class; (2) his prohibited conduct was comparably serious to misconduct by employees outside the protected class; and (3) the disciplinary measures taken against him were more harsh than those enforced against other employees. The facts alleged in the complaint were found to present a plausible claim that The Roomstore is liable if it engaged in the alleged conduct.