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Worker Alleging Age Discrimination Will Have His Day in Court

A federal appeals court overturned a ruling dismissing an older worker’s employment discrimination claim, agreeing with AARP that the lower court had set too high a hurdle for the worker to meet.


R+L Carriers hired Eugene Rhodes as senior director of human resources with instructions to root out discrimination, but then fired him at age 58, in October 2009, in retaliation (he argues) for having objected to corporate policies allegedly violating various civil rights and employment laws. A trial court dismissed his case. Rhodes appealed.

The question on appeal was whether the trial court put too high a burden on Rhodes at the outset of his case. While a plaintiff is not obliged to prove his case in his initial pleadings, a complaint must state sufficient facts to articulate an alleged violation of law and also to inform the defendant of the nature of the charges asserted, so that it is possible to prepare a defense. If a complaint does not allege sufficient facts, the case can be dismissed; if a complaint is sufficient, however, then the case may proceed, with the parties then focusing on developing evidence needed to justify — or to preclude — holding a trial.

AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys filed AARP’s brief with the National Employment Lawyers Association, arguing that the trial court misapplied the plaintiff’s initial burden of proof. The brief challenged the trial court’s application of two recent Supreme Court decisions that have warned plaintiffs not to rely on speculative or implausible fact assertions in their initial complaint. AARP argued that what is required at the initial pleading stage is “fair notice to defendants of the nature of the claim, and that the claim alleged be facially plausible … A complaint is not meant to prove a claim; it simply ‘raise[s] a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence’ satisfying the elements of the legal claim.” AARP’s brief explained that Rhodes presented numerous allegations about specific objections he claims to have made to many particular R+L practices. If these contentions are taken to be true (which the court is required to do when considering an initial dismissal), this creates a plausible claim of discrimination, and that is all that Rhodes needed at this stage.

The appeals court agreed. “The district court erred in demanding such detailed factual content to survive a motion to dismiss. While these facts may be critical ultimately to proving Rhodes’ claims on a motion for summary judgment or at trial, to demand such detailed pleading at the motion to dismiss stage” was counter to statute and procedure, ruled the court.

What’s at Stake

Intent to discriminate can be hard to prove until after the parties have been able to use the judicial discovery process, because the employer usually controls all the most important evidence (internal documents, access to supervisors and coworkers, etc.). If courts set hurdles for workers that require them to offer hard evidence simply to get in the courthouse door, few lawsuits with merit will survive, and employers will have little incentive to comply with anti-discrimination laws, such as the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, Title VII, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Case Status

Rhodes v. R+L Carriers Inc was decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

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