Third Circuit Court of Appeals Vacates District Court’s Order and Remands Sexual Harassment Case to New Jersey Federal Court

On April 2, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed the decision of New Jersey District Court Judge Dennis M. Cavanaugh in the 2012 case Estabrook v. Safety and Ecology Corporation (SEC). In her complaint, Plaintiff Marissa Estabrook, who had worked as a Chemist at Defendant SEC‘s laboratory in Maywood, New Jersey, alleged that her employer had subjected her to sexual harassment, racial discrimination, unlawful retaliation and constructive discharge.

Estabrook claimed that she had been sexually harassed by a coworker, Marcus Chase (“Chase”), who had previously been reported to the company several times for sexually harassing other women. And, as would turn out to be important, she mentioned several of these other women by name in her complaint and noted that they had also complained to SEC management. In addition, she argued, Chase had a history of responding to situations in which women spurned his advances and reported him by “ma(king) false accusations and spread(ing) malicious rumors throughout the workplace.” She claims that he did these things to her also–constantly making sexual comments to her, then retaliating when she didn’t respond and complained to management–and thereby made her working life so miserable that she had no real choice but to quit her job.

In December 2012 the District Court had granted the Defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint. “The Court concluded that Estabrook’s sexual harassment claims failed because she ‘failed to allege dates or times on which alleged harassment of other woman [sic] employed by SEC occurred,” and “provide(d) no facts to support her conclusion that SEC was in fact aware of such incidents…” The Court also dismissed Estabrook’s retaliation claims because she “has not demonstrated that she suffered intentional discrimination due to her report of harassment.” In short, the Court concluded that Estabrook had failed to present evidence “beyond mere assertions” or to “plead facts.”

The Appeals Court fundamentally rejected the lower court’s premise that the Plaintiff was required to offer proof at the pleadings stage, as opposed to merely bringing a plausible set of facts which, if true, would imply that the Defendant treated her unlawfully. The level of specificity required by Judge Cavanaugh “is not required under Rule 8 and the standards set forth by the Supreme Court in Iqbal and Twombly.” In addition, the Appeals Court continued, in this case the Plaintiff actually had introduced an array of specific, testable factual claims that would need to be tested through a process of discovery and, if those claims survived that process, would tend to support her legal arguments. Ms. Estabrook had in fact given “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,” which is all that the relevant Federal Rule of Civil Procedure [8(a)(2)] requires, and this statement was actually far more detailed than it needed to be. The lower court “erroneously concluded that Estabrook failed to plead sufficient facts to support her claim,” because they had applied “an overly stringent pleading standard.”

So the appeals process worked, and Ms. Estabrook will finally have her day in court.

If you are an employee and you believe you have been subjected to sexual harassment or retaliation, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.