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Labor Logic

Prosser

John D. Finerty, Jr.

Federal Rule 8(a) calls for a short and plain statement of claims for relief in complaints filed in federal court. It is enough to name the plaintiff and the defendant, state the nature of the claim for relief and a few additional details, such as the date of any occurrence, that will allow the defendant to investigate. Kolupa v. Roselle Park District, Case No. 05-2925 (7th Cir., Feb. 10, 2006), explains how these minimum pleading requirements work in federal employment cases.

Background

Christopher Kolupa sued his former employer, the Roselle Park District, claiming his termination was based on his religion. In his complaint, Kolupa alleged other employees were treated differently. He did not, however, allege that other employees were “similarly situated.”

The district court judge believed that federal law required Kolupa to allege that similarly situated employees were treated differently and that he would have retained his job but for his religion. The judge, therefore, dismissed his complaint for failure to state a claim.

The court of appeals reversed. According to the Seventh Circuit, the complaint needed only to state that the employer caused some concrete injury by holding Kolupa’s religion against him. The complaint did not need to set forth the “prima facie” case familiar under Title VII and McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). The details of the case, and specifically whether the complaint makes out a prima facie case, are for either summary judgment under Rule 56 or if the district court orders a more definite statement under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(e).

Analysis

As discussed in Kolupa v. Roselle Park District, federal complaints are to plead claims rather than facts. In fact, the federal rules provide models to illustrate how to plead a short and simple claim for relief under Rule 8(a). Accordingly, plenty of cases have held that a narrative explanation of a claim for relief is unnecessary. E.g. Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506 (2002); McDonald v. Household Int’l, Inc., 425 F.3d 424 (7th Cir. 2005).

On the other hand, the McDonnell Douglas standard is not meant to test the sufficiency of the complaint. Rather, McDonnell Douglas is a screening mechanism to weed out inferential cases that are insufficient for trial. In other words, “the prima facie case under McDonnell Douglas … is an evidentiary standard, not a pleading requirement.” See Swierkiewicz, 534 U.S. at 510. To invoke the evidentiary standards in McDonnell Douglas, a defendant has a number of other options, including a motion for judgment on the pleadings or a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56.

The court in Kolupa admonished judges and litigants about dismissing pleadings: “Any district judge (for that matter, any defendant) tempted to write ‘this complaint is deficient because it does not contain …’ should stop and think: What rule of law requires a complaint to contain that allegation?”

Despite that admonition, the court in Kolupa went onto dismiss a portion of the complaint because Kolupa did not allege in the administrative stage of the proceeding all of the claims in his federal complaint. For example, Kolupa alleged religious discrimination, but when he got to federal court he also alleged that his former employer failed to accommodate and promote him.

The Administrative Charge

Plaintiffs who want bring claims in federal court must first file charges with a federal or state discrimination agency. The federal complaint cannot exceed the scope of the administrative charge. In Kolupa’s case, he did not mention promotion, accommodation or retaliation in his administrative charge, so those claims in the federal complaint were dismissed. The court remanded the balance of the case to the district court for further proceedings.

For more information on this case, contact John D. Finerty, Jr. at Michael Best & Friedrich LLP at (414) 225-8269 or on the Internet at jdfinerty@ michaelbest.com.

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