Templeton v. First Tennessee Bank, N.A., No. 10-1753 (4th Cir. Apr. 22, 2011)

By Paul Mollica

On a Friday afternoon, the Fourth Circuit in an unpublished decision dispenses some quick justice for a Title VII retaliation plaintiff — with an assist from the appellate division of the EEOC — holding that the complaint-filing stage is too early to decide whether a plaintiff can prove causation between a protected activity (here, complaining to management about sex harassment) and an adverse action (the company allegedly refusing to rehire her two years later).

Templeton v. First Tennessee Bank, N.A., No. 10-1753 (4th Cir. Apr. 22, 2011): Plaintiffs’ lawyers have become increasingly apprehensive that some federal judges may use the recent Rule 12 decisions from the Supreme Court — Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1950 (2009) — to accelerate dismissal of ordinary employment-discrimination cases at the complaint stage, before the employee has any opportunity to conduct civil discovery.

The Fourth Circuit applies the brakes and holds today that district courts cannot simply dismiss a case because they project that the employee will eventually fail on an element of their proof. In this case, the district court dismissed, inter alia, a claim of retaliation on the ground that, based on the facts alleged in the complaint, “too much time [two years] had elapsed between Templeton’s harassment complaint and Defendants’ refusal to rehire her.” The panel holds that a claim could be made even on such facts: 

“Because Templeton resigned her employment shortly after she complained of harassment, Templeton was retaliated against, if at all, upon the employer’s first opportunity to do so, i.e., when Templeton expressed her interest in being rehired approximately two years after her resignation. . . .

“According to the complaint filed in this case, Templeton made clear when she resigned her employment that she was doing so, at least in part, because management allegedly failed to remedy the sexual harassment about which she complained and failed to prevent ensuing retaliation by the alleged harasser. Coupled with her allegation that Defendants would not rehire Templeton because (according to one management official) she had ‘issues with management,’ we find that it is at least plausible that Defendants’ refusal to rehire Templeton in 2008 was causally-related to Templeton’s previous harassment complaint.”

Accordingly, the case returns to the district court for further factual development.