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4th Circuit upholds dismissal of race discrimination case

A U.S. appeals court has upheld the dismissal of an $800,000 race discrimination case against the Maryland Judiciary, saying the fired worker’s “conclusory” complaint failed to allege facts that would indicate an unlawful act occurred.

Daniel Coleman’s bias complaint failed to rise “above the speculative level,” the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stated. Coleman alleged that he was dismissed as executive director of procurement and contract administration at the Administrative Office of the Courts because he is black.

In 2008, Coleman, through his attorney Edward Smith Jr., filed suit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore against the Maryland Court of Appeals, State Court Administrator Frank Broccolina and a co-worker, Larry Jones.

Chief U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg dismissed the case in May 2009, saying the complaint was “devoid of any facts from which to infer race-based discrimination.”

The 4th Circuit, in upholding Legg’s decision, noted that Coleman’s complaint — alleging discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — stated he was “treated differently as a result of his race than whites who were similarly situated.” But the document provides no further information to notify the defendants of what the disparate treatment was or how it adversely affected Coleman, the 4th Circuit stated in its 3-0 decision last week.

“Here, although Coleman’s complaint conclusorily alleges that Coleman was terminated based on his race, it does not assert facts establishing the plausibility of that allegation,” Chief Judge William B. Traxler Jr. wrote for the appellate court. “Absent such support, the complaint’s allegations of race discrimination do not rise above speculation.”

Smith, a solo practitioner in Baltimore, did not return telephone messages Friday seeking comment on the 4th Circuit’s decision.

The Maryland Judiciary, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on the decision.

Joining Traxler’s opinion were judges Dennis W. Shedd and James C. Dever III. Dever, a judge on the U.S. District Court for Eastern North Carolina, was sitting in on the case by designation.

The 4th Circuit’s ruling followed the Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal.

In Iqbal, the justices dismissed a Pakistani Muslim’s claim that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III ordered him detained after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because of his national origin and religion. The high court said Javaid Iqbal’s complaint failed to allege sufficient facts to support a claim of purposeful and unlawful discrimination.

Quoting from the Iqbal decision, the 4th Circuit said, “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.”

Coleman, who was with the Administrative Office of the Courts from 2001 to August 2007, said the illegal discrimination occurred after he investigated a personnel matter in 2005 that involved Jones, a member of the procurement and contract administration staff. According to the complaint, Jones received a five-day suspension, but administrator Broccolina intervened and Jones received a one-day suspension.

Broccolina then began to investigate Coleman, the complaint stated.

Coleman said he was fired in August 2007 because of his race.

He sought $200,000 in compensatory and $600,000 in punitive damages.

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals et al., 4 USCA No. 09-1582. Reported. Opinion by Traxler, C.J. Filed Nov. 10, 2010.

Issue:

Did the trial judge err in dismissing a race bias lawsuit because the complaint lacked factual allegations to support the claim?

Holding:

No; a complaint must “assert facts establishing the plausibility of [the] allegation.”

Counsel:

Edward Smith Jr. for appellant; Hugh Scott Curtis for appellee.

RecordFax # 10-1110-60 (11 pages).