Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N. A.
534 U.S. 506 (2002)

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No. 00-1853. Argued January 15, 2002-Decided February 26, 2002

Petitioner, a 53-year-old native of Hungary, filed this suit against respondent, his former employer, alleging that he had been fired on account of his national origin in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and on account of his age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). In affirming the District Court's dismissal of the complaint, the Second Circuit relied on its settled precedent requiring an employment discrimination complaint to allege facts constituting a prima facie case of discrimination under the framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U. S. 792, 802. The court held that petitioner had failed to meet his burden because his allegations were insufficient as a matter of law to raise an inference of discrimination.

Held: An employment discrimination complaint need not contain specific facts establishing a prima facie case under the McDonnell Douglas framework, but instead must contain only "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief," Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 8(a)(2). The McDonnell Douglas framework-which requires the plaintiff to show (1) membership in a protected group, (2) qualification for the job in question, (3) an adverse employment action, and (4) circumstances supporting an inference of discrimination-is an evidentiary standard, not a pleading requirement. See, e. g., 411 U. S., at 800. The Court has never indicated that the requirements for establishing a prima facie case apply to pleading. Moreover, the McDonnell Douglas framework does not apply where, for example, a plaintiff is able to produce direct evidence of discrimination. See Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Thurston, 469 U. S. 111,121. Under the Second Circuit's heightened pleading standard, however, a plaintiff without direct evidence at the time of his complaint must plead a prima facie case of discrimination even though discovery might uncover such direct evidence. It seems incongruous to require a plaintiff, in order to survive a motion to dismiss, to plead more facts than he may ultimately need to prove to succeed on the merits if direct evidence of discrimination is discovered. Moreover, the precise requirements of the prima facie case can vary with the context and were "never intended to be rigid, mechanized, or ritualistic." Furnco Constr. Corp. v. Waters, 438


u. S. 567, 577. It may be difficult to define the precise formulation of the required prima facie case in a particular case before discovery has unearthed relevant facts and evidence. Consequently, the prima facie case should not be transposed into a rigid pleading standard for discrimination cases. Imposing the Second Circuit's heightened standard conflicts with Rule 8(a)'s express language, which requires simply that the complaint "give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U. S. 41,47. A court may dismiss a complaint only if it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations. Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U. S. 69, 73. Petitioner's complaint easily satisfies Rule 8(a)'s requirements because it gives respondent fair notice of the basis for his claims and the grounds upon which they rest. In addition, it states claims upon which relief could be granted under Title VII and the ADEA. Thus, the complaint is sufficient to survive respondent's motion to dismiss. Pp. 510-515.

5 Fed. Appx. 63, reversed and remanded.

THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Harold 1. Goodman argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioner.

Jeffrey P. Minear argued the cause for the United States et al. as amici curiae urging reversal. On the brief were Solicitor General Olson, Assistant Attorney General Boyd, Deputy Solicitor General Clement, Patricia A. Millett, and Philip B. Sklover.

Lauren Reiter Brody argued the cause for respondent.

With her on the brief was Frances Kulka Browne. *

*Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law by John A. Payton, Gary T. Johnson, Norman Redlich, Barbara R. Arnwine, Thomas J. Henderson, and Nancy L. Perkins; and for the National Employment Lawyers Association et al. by Paul W Mollica and Paula A. Brantner.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the Center for Individual Freedom by Linda Van Winkle Deacon and Julie Arias Young; and for the Equal Employment Advisory Council by Ann Elizabeth Reesman and Katherine Y. K. Cheung.

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding
A prima facie case in an employment discrimination matter, as established by McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green (1973), does not need to be pleaded at the level of specific facts in the initial complaint.
Sweierkiewicz argued that Sorema, N.A. had terminated his employment because of his nationality (Hungarian) and his age (53). He brought claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment act of 1967 (ADEA). The complaint was dismissed on the basis that it failed to allege facts that would constitute a prima facie case of discrimination as provided by McDonnell Douglas. The statements in the complaint did not raise an inference of discrimination as a matter of law, according to the appellate court.



  • Clarence Thomas (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • Antonin Scalia
  • David H. Souter
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Stephen G. Breyer

There are four main elements in the McDonnell Douglas framework. The plaintiff must be a member of a protected group, must be qualified for the job at issue, must have been subject to an adverse employment action, and must show circumstances that support an inference of discrimination. However, this inquiry applies at the evidentiary phase rather than the pleadings phase. A complaint, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), needs to contain only a short and plain statement of the claim that shows why the plaintiff is entitled to a remedy. It would be inappropriate to extend the McDonnell Douglas elements to pleadings because they can vary according to the case and often are based on information found in discovery.

Under the express language of the FRCP, a defendant needs to receive no information in the complaint beyond what provides it with fair notice of the cause of action and the grounds supporting it. A complaint should be dismissed for failure to state a claim only if there is no set of facts consistent with the allegations in the complaint that would provide grounds for a remedy.

Case Commentary

Federal courts have started to shift away from heightened pleading requirements, mandating only a sufficient level of detail to provide notice rather than establish every fact relevant to the claim.

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