The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently remanded a former employee’s racial discrimination lawsuit brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In Littlejohn v. City of New York, No. 14-1395 (August 3, 2015), the court held that the “plausibility” standard for pleadings espoused in Twombly and Iqbal applies to Title VII claims, insofar as the plaintiff need only provide “plausible support to a minimal inference of discriminatory motivation.”

Dawn Littlejohn, an African-American woman, worked for the New York City Administration for Children’s Services as the director of its Equal Employment Opportunity Office. Littlejohn brought suit against the City of New York under Title VII and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983. In her complaint, Littlejohn claimed that her supervisors had subjected her to a hostile work environment and demoted and transferred her on the basis of her race, as demonstrated by their alleged filling of her vacated position with a less-qualified white employee. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed Littlejohn’s complaint in its entirety. On appeal, however, the Second Circuit revived Littlejohn’s disparate treatment claim after clarifying the pleading standard in Title VII actions.

Specifically, the Second Circuit examined whether the “plausibility” standard set forth in Iqbal and Twombly applied to Title VII actions. In particular, the court questioned the extent to which the plausibility standard should apply in light of Littlejohn’s notice pleading obligations (as imposed under the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Swierkiewicz v. Sorema) and her obligations under the McDonnell Douglas framework to establish a prima facie case. The court concluded that “Iqbal’s requirement applies to Title VII complaints of employment discrimination, but does not affect the benefit to plaintiffs pronounced in the McDonnell Douglas quartet” of cases. Accordingly, the court enunciated the following pleading standard for Title VII actions:

[A]bsent direct evidence of discrimination, what must be plausibly supported by facts alleged in the complaint is that the plaintiff is a member of a protected class, was qualified, suffered an adverse employment action, and has at least minimal support for the proposition that the employer was motivated by discriminatory intent. The facts alleged must give plausible support to the reduced requirements that arise under McDonnell Douglas in the initial phase of a Title VII litigation. The facts required by Iqbal to be alleged in the complaint need not give plausible support to the ultimate question of whether the adverse employment action was attributable to discrimination. They need only give plausible support to a minimal inference of discriminatory motivation.

In explaining this pleading standard for Title VII cases, the court reconciled the minimal requirements of McDonnell Douglas—that an employee show that he or she is a member of a protected class, was qualified for the position, suffered an adverse employment action, and has some evidence to support an inference that the employer acted with discriminatory motivation—with the heightened plausibility standard of Iqbal and Twombly. Thus, in the Second Circuit, while plaintiffs need evidence sufficient to prove discriminatory motivation by an employer, at the initial stage of the litigation and prior to any burden shifting, plaintiffs do not need substantial evidence of discriminatory intent.