In Rodriguez-Reyes v. Molina-Rodriguez, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that the prima facie case is not the appropriate benchmark for determining whether a complaint meets the plausibility pleading requirement established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal. This ruling may make it more difficult for employers to seek the dismissal of claims of marginal merit.
In Rodriguez-Reyes, former teachers in the Puerto Rico Administration of Juvenile Institutions ("AJI"), alleged that the AJI discriminated against them based on their political affiliation. In 2008, the New Progressive Party (NPP) won Puerto Rico's general election, ending the eight-year reign of its political rival, the Popular Democratic Party. Plaintiffs alleged that once NPP officials took control of the AIJ, they launched a "witch hunt" and ousted plaintiffs from their positions, notwithstanding their untarnished work records and strong qualifications. The AIJ then filled the empty posts with APP-affiliated replacements.
Plaintiffs sued several government defendants, invoking 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and alleged discrimination based on political affiliation in violation of the First Amendment. The U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico granted the defendants' motion to dismiss and held that the plaintiffs' complaint failed to state a claim for relief because it did not please facts sufficient to establish a prima facie case of political discrimination. Plaintiffs appealed, arguing that the district court applied a standard more stringent than the plausibility requirement demands.
The First Circuit agreed. In reversing the dismissal of the plaintiffs' claims, the First Circuit held that a 2002 Supreme Court decision that held that it was not necessary to plead facts supporting a prima facie case at the pleading stage was not overturned by, but in fact was consistent with, the Supreme Court's subsequent holdings in Twombly and Iqbal, which require that a plaintiff's complaint states a "plausible claim for relief." The First Circuit noted however, that such a conclusion does not make the prima facie case irrelevant to a plausibility determination at the initial pleading stage. Rather, while a plaintiff need not plead facts sufficient to establish a prima facie case, the prima facie case may be used as background or "as a prism to shed light upon the plausibility of the claim." With this framework in place, the First Circuit held that plaintiffs' factual allegations, taken in their entirety, plausibly stated a claim for political discrimination.
The Rodriguez-Reyes is significant because it affirms that even under the heightened pleading standards articulated in Twombly and Iqbal, plaintiffs need not assert facts supporting a prima facie case at the pleading stage. This decision could result in claims of marginal merit surviving a motion to dismiss, requiring employers to incur significant attorneys' fees and costs during the discovery process. Employers and their counsel should carefully review complaints when deciding whether a motion to dismiss is warranted.