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Rhodes v. R+L Carriers

AARP Asks Federal Appeals Court to Allow Worker to Bring Discrimination Case to Court

AARP asked a federal appeals court to overturn a ruling dismissing an older worker's employment discrimination claim.

Background

Eugene Rhodes, age 58, was Senior Director of Human Resources at R+L Carriers when the company terminated him in October 2009 in retaliation (he argues) for having objected to corporate policies allegedly violating various civil rights and employment laws. For example, he alleges that he had objected to policies barring women from certain jobs and paying them less, making hiring decisions based on age, and barring employment of some people who would qualify as disabled. A trial court dismissed his case. Rhodes appealed.

At issue is whether the trial court put too high a burden on Rhodes. While a plaintiff is not obliged to prove his case in his initial pleadings, the initial complaint must state sufficient facts to both support a claim of violation of law and to allow the defendant to prepare a defense. If a complaint does not allege sufficient facts, the case can be dismissed; if a complaint does allege sufficient facts, then the case proceeds to development of more extensive evidence needed in order to justify proceeding to a trial.

AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys filed AARP's brief jointly with the National Employment Lawyers Association, arguing that the trial court applied the incorrect burden of proof. The brief argues that what is required at the initial pleading stage — rather than at trial — 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."

The trial court specifically faulted Rhodes for not providing sufficient proof of discriminatory intent. AARP's brief counters that Rhodes presented allegations about objections he claims he made to many specific R+L practices. If these contentions are taken to be true (which the court is required to do when considering dismissal of an initial complaint), this creates an inference of discrimination, and that is all that Rhodes needs at this stage. Requiring an employee to provide hard evidence of discriminatory intent at the outset not only would be counter to the laws allegedly violated, but also would establish an almost insurmountable test for wronged workers to meet.

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 co-workers, 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. is before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.


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