William & Mary Law Review


The Supreme Court’s unanimous 2002 decision in Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., which took a very permissive approach to pleading discrimination claims, may or may not remain good law after Ashcroft v. Iqbal. As is well known, Iqbal took a restrictive approach to pleading generally under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and its application to employment discrimination cases could pose serious problems for plaintiffs attempting to get into federal court. In addition, there is certainly a tension between Swierkiewicz and Iqbal. This is in part because the former is a strong reaffirmation of notice pleading as it has traditionally been understood whereas the latter makes clear that “plausible pleading” is something very different. But it is also because Iqbal was, after all, a discrimination case, albeit brought under the Constitution rather than a federal statute, and its finding that the discrimination alleged there was not plausibly pled could easily be applied to statutes such as Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Numerous scholars have analyzed Iqbal generally and several have addressed the application of plausible pleading to claims under the antidiscrimination laws. A respectable view is that Swierkiewicz remains good law, although the commentators recognize legitimate questions about its continued vitality. This Article, while agreeing that readings of both Swierkiewicz and Iqbal would permit this result, nevertheless explores the contrary possibility: supposing Iqbal sub silentio overruled Swierkiewicz and applies plausible pleading to discrimination claims, what must a plaintiff plead to avoid dismissal for failure to state a claim?

The most obvious response is that the plaintiff should plead a prima facie case of discrimination under the traditional McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green standard. Although Swierkiewicz held that pleading a prima facie case was not necessary, in part because there are other ways of proving discrimination, it did not suggest that such pleading would be insufficient. There are, however, complications with pleading a traditional prima facie case that should be explored. Further, there are at least three alternatives for attorneys who cannot, consistent with Rule 11, allege such a prima facie case. First, the Article proposes that the plaintiff might survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion by pleading “direct evidence” of discrimination. Although the term has a checkered history in discrimination jurisprudence, the pleading context suggests a new look at an old concept. Second, the Article addresses the possibility of pleading the existence of a “comparator” whose more favorable treatment than the plaintiff may make the claim of discrimination plausible.

Third, and perhaps most radically, the Article argues that plaintiffs should be able to take the Supreme Court at its word in Iqbal that, in deciding a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a district court must take as true all facts, as opposed to legal conclusions, alleged in the complaint. The Article proposes that plaintiffs plead the existence of social science research showing the pervasiveness of discrimination. Taken as true, this body of literature may well “nudge” a particular claim across the border drawn by the Supreme Court between a “possible” claim and a “plausible” one.