To start a federal discrimination or retaliation lawsuit, a plaintiff must file a complaint with the court. The complaint is a document which states the facts which the plaintiff alleges add up to causing the defendant to be liable to the plaintiff. In Federal courts, the complaint must set forth enough facts to make the plaintiff’s claims plausible, otherwise, the case risks being dismissed by the court. On June 15, 2017, New York’s Federal appellate court decided a case which discusses this “plausibility” standard.
The Plausibility Standard
For years, Federal courts applied a liberal “notice pleading” requirement to determine whether complaints should be dismissed or not. Courts looked to determine whether there were enough facts to give notice to the defendants about the basis for the plaintiff’s case. Then, in 2009, the Supreme Court in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, applied a stricter standard and held that complaints must “contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true” to state a plausible claim for relief. If not, the complaint will likely be dismissed. The Supreme Court did not provide much guidance about what that standard means and so courts have struggled to apply the standard to the cases coming before them.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals, New York’s Federal appellate court, faced these questions in Irrera v. Humpherys, which is discussed below.
Court Determines Retaliation Case is Plausible
Irrera was a graduate music student at the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester, one of the nation’s most highly regarded music schools. At Eastman, Irrera was pursuing a doctor of musical arts degree and Humpherys was the chair of the piano department and one of his teachers.
On multiple occasions, Humpherys made unwanted sexual advances towards Irrera, which Irrera refused to accept. Some of the unwanted advances included caressing his shoulder, rubbing his hands up and down Irrera’s arms during a piano lesson, blowing kisses at him, and looking at him up and down in a sexual manner.
As a student pursuing a doctor of medical arts degree, Irrera had to perform two solo recitals. Despite being told repeatedly by Humpherys that he was ready and that he would do well, Irrera failed both of his recitals.
Irrera was shocked because in the 27 years that he had been playing the piano, this was the first time that he failed a solo recital. Not surprisingly enough, however, the recitals were judged by a panel of three professors, including Humpherys.
In a recorded conversation, Humpherys told Irrera that he “would never get a university professor job,” and threatened to “make his life a living hell” if he reported the sexual harassment. Regardless, Irrera complained to a school dean.
After Irrera received his degree from Eastman, he applied to 28 colleges and universities for teaching positions in their piano departments. However, Irrera did not receive even one interview invitation.
At issue in Irrera’s case was whether his inability to secure a job interview was caused by Humpherys in retaliation for Irrera rejecting his prior sexual advances.
Irrera lost his retaliation claim at the District Court because the court held that his claim was speculative. The court held that Irrera didn’t state factual allegations in the complaint suggesting that Humpherys provided Irrera’s potential employers with any kind of reference, including a negative reference.
On June 15, 2017, however, the Second Circuit reversed the District Courts decision on the retaliation claim. In holding that Irrera’s retaliation claim was plausible, the Second Circuit held that although it wasn’t impossible that all 28 schools didn’t give Irrera an interview based on his credentials, it was in fact plausible that the schools received negative references from Humpherys.
The Second Circuit also concluded that Irrera had stated a plausible retaliation claim because Humpherys had previously warned Irrera that he would make his life a “living hell” if he reported the sexual advances. Additionally, since Humpherys was the chair of the department, it was plausible that the schools, to which Irrera applied to, would contact Humpherys even though he was not listed as a reference.
Notably, the Second Circuit held that Irrera’s complaint was sufficient even though Irrera did not allege that he was aware of any particular instance in which the defendants sent a negative reference to a school. The Court used its “common experience” to hold that colleges “rarely, if ever, disclose the content of the references they receive.” The sum of the circumstances suggested that the retaliation was plausible.
In sum, this case reminds us that the plausibility standard is not always clear and lawyers and plaintiffs must draft well pleaded complaints to survive possible challenges by defendants to dismiss the case. If you think you have faced retaliation in the workplace or if you have questions about filing a discrimination or retaliation lawsuit, contact the Long Island employment lawyers of Famighetti & Weinick, PLLC at 631-352-0050.
Today’s employment law blog about workplace retaliation lawsuits was written by Thalia Olaya, a Hofstra Law School intern working at Famighetti & Weinick, PLLC, this summer.