A Colorado airline employee who had been fired sued her former employer for violating so many laws we could barely count. But the foundation of her lawsuit was that she’d been both mistreated and fired because she is an Arab-American born in Kuwait, the daughter of Palestinians, and a Muslim. Judges struggled to discover the basis for her suit.
What happened. "Rahman" was hired by United Air Lines in 1995 and rose to the position of Business Services Representative. She was fired in 2009, for reasons that are not explained in the appeals court opinion in this case. The opinion notes only that "she performed her job well at all times."
She charged that she had been fired based on discrimination against her race, religion, national origin, and ethnic heritage; but she also lodged claims of retaliation for complaints of discrimination and because she was denied leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). And, she included charges of breach of contract, promissory estoppel, wrongful termination in violation of Colorado public policy, and all the same claims under state law as she had made under federal civil rights law.
A judge in federal district court dismissed her case for failure to state a claim. His point was that all her charges were vague, and the entire suit was lacking in basic facts and explanations of what she charged had happened to her. Rahman appealed to the 10th Circuit, which covers Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming.
What the court said. Appellate judges also struggled with Rahman’s case. They reviewed two rulings regarding what a plaintiff must present according to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in order to have a valid case. The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly and in 2009 in Ashcroft v. Iqbal that a successful plaintiff must "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face."
Although the two rulings differ a bit from each other, judges noted that Rahman had not shown evidence of discrimination nor said to whom she’d complained about it or why she requested FMLA leave and who rejected the request, and nothing about why United had fired her. She also complained that someone grabbed her arm at one point and someone else sent out an inappropriate e-mail. Judges said none of that amounted to a plausible claim, so they, too, dismissed her suit. Khalik v. United Air Lines, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, No. 11-1063 (2012).
Point to remember: The circuits may differ somewhat on standards of plausibility, but it’s likely most circuits would have dismissed this plaintiff’s suit.