McCleary-Evans v. Maryland Department of Transportation

780 F.3d 582 (2015)

Quick Summary

Dawnn McCleary-Evans (plaintiff) filed a lawsuit against the Maryland Department of Transportation (defendant), alleging she was denied employment due to race and gender discrimination. She claimed bias in the hiring process favored white candidates, despite her qualifications.

The issue before the court was whether her complaint met the plausibility standard to survive a motion to dismiss. The Court upheld the dismissal, concluding that her claims were too conclusory without sufficient factual support. Judge Wynn dissented in part, advocating for a less stringent application of pleading standards in discrimination cases.

Facts of the Case

Dawnn McCleary-Evans (plaintiff) applied for two job openings within the State Highway Administration of the Maryland Department of Transportation (DOT) (defendant). Despite her extensive experience and qualifications, she was not selected for either position.

McCleary-Evans, an African American woman, claimed that the hiring decisions were biased, favoring white candidates, and filed a lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She asserted that the decision-makers had unfairly determined to hire only white individuals for the positions, overlooking her qualifications.

Her complaint was dismissed by the district court for failing to plausibly support a claim of discrimination. McCleary-Evans appealed, challenging the application of the incorrect standard by the district court in evaluating her complaint.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. McCleary-Evans filed a lawsuit alleging race and gender discrimination after not being hired for two positions.
  2. The district court dismissed her complaint for failing to state a plausible claim of discrimination.
  3. McCleary-Evans appealed the district court’s decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the district court applied the correct standard in dismissing McCleary-Evans’s complaint alleging race and gender discrimination under Title VII.

Rule of Law

To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.

Reasoning and Analysis

The appellate court reviewed whether McCleary-Evans’s complaint contained enough factual detail to suggest that the Maryland Department of Transportation failed to hire her because of her race or sex. The court determined that her allegations, without more substantial factual support, were too conclusory.

The decision-makers’ alleged bias and discriminatory intent were not substantiated with specific instances or evidence in her complaint. The court found that the mere fact that non-Black candidates were hired over McCleary-Evans did not inherently suggest discrimination.

Furthermore, the court clarified that while plaintiffs are not required to establish a prima facie case in their complaint, as per Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., they must still meet the plausibility standard set forth in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal. The court concluded that McCleary-Evans’s complaint did not satisfy this standard because it did not include sufficient information to show that discrimination was a plausible explanation for her not being hired.


The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to dismiss McCleary-Evans’s complaint.

Dissenting Opinions

Judge Wynn dissented in part, expressing concern over the majority’s reliance on Iqbal and Twombly over Swierkiewicz in an employment discrimination context and suggesting that the plaintiff’s allegations should have been sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.

Key Takeaways

  1. A plaintiff’s complaint must contain enough factual detail to state a plausible claim for relief under Title VII.
  2. While a prima facie case is not required at the pleading stage, allegations must surpass mere speculation or conclusory statements to meet the plausibility standard.
  3. The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of McCleary-Evans’s complaint, finding it lacked necessary factual substance.
  4. Judge Wynn’s dissent highlights a debate over the appropriate application of federal pleading standards in employment discrimination cases following Swierkiewicz, Twombly, and Iqbal.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What must be included in a complaint to ensure it is deemed plausible?

To ensure a complaint is deemed plausible, it must contain sufficient factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. The factual allegations should rise above mere speculative levels, showing more than just a sheer possibility of unlawful action by the defendant.

  • For example: Instead of simply stating that an employer fired an employee, the complaint might detail instances of discriminatory remarks made by supervisors, discrepancies in treatment between employees of different races, or statistically significant patterns in hiring.

How do courts differentiate between conclusory allegations and fact-based claims in discrimination cases?

Courts differentiate between conclusory allegations and fact-based claims by examining the specificity and contextual richness of the assertions. Conclusory allegations are general claims lacking detail and substantive context, whereas fact-based claims are grounded in precise, real-world details that provide a context suggesting discriminatory intent or impact.

  • For example: Rather than stating ‘The employer discriminates against women,’ a fact-based claim would specify that female employees with equivalent qualifications and experience to male counterparts were consistently passed over for promotions.

Why is establishing a plausible claim important in the context of employment law?

Establishing a plausible claim in employment law is important because it satisfies the legal requirements to proceed past initial motions to dismiss and allows for discovery and potential trial. It serves to demonstrate to the court that there is a legitimate basis for the claim which merits further investigation and legal consideration.

  • For example: If an employee alleges wrongful termination based on age discrimination, providing evidence such as a series of emails where management discusses replacing older employees with younger ones would help establish the plausibility of their claim.


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