Twombly Motion Resolves Civil Rights Claim Arising From Suspicion of Shoplifting

Shoplifting can cause retailers to incur costs far greater than simply the value of the items stolen. Even when the store and its employees act in the utmost good faith, someone accused of shoplifting can turn around and sue the store. These suits sometimes include claims of racial discrimination. Until recently, it was difficult to get these suits dismissed. As a result, retailers could become embroiled in litigation involving an intrusive discovery process and significant defense costs that could last years and unfairly tarnish their reputation. Fortunately, two recent Supreme Court cases have made it much easier to have such cases dismissed with a relatively small amount of time, energy, and cost.

Jordan Coyne & Savits, L.L.P. recently defended a national clothing retailer sued in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland by a person who was ejected on suspicion of shoplifting. According to the plaintiff's complaint, he opened his shopping bag near some jeans on display to ascertain whether they matched the shoes in his bag. A store clerk notified the Mall's security guards that the plaintiff was a "suspicious person" who was "likely stealing." The security guards confronted the plaintiff and escorted him from the Mall. He brought a civil rights claim under 42 U.S.C. sec. 1981 against the retailer, the owner of the Mall, and the security guards, asserting that the incident was motivated by racial discrimination, seeking attorney's fees and damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy.

Jordan Coyne answered with a Rule 12 motion to dismiss the Complaint for failure to state a claim for relief. Relying on the Supreme Court's recent decisions in Twombly and Iqbal, we argued that the case should be dismissed because the plaintiff had not pled any facts tending to show that the acts were motivated by any intent to discriminate against plaintiff.

The Court agreed and dismissed the case without prejudice. Applying Twombly, the Court ruled that the Complaint did not allege facts sufficient to "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." The Court noted that "plaintiff has not alleged facts showing a causal link between his race and his removal, or that any of the defendants intended to discriminate against him because of his race." While the Complaint alleged that the "removal from the Mall was made solely for the reason that the plaintiff was an African-American and was made with malicious and discriminatory intent," this was deemed to be a "mere conclusory statement of the kind that Iqbal rejected." If anything, the plaintiff's factual allegations showed that the merchant's actions were the result of a legitimate belief that the plaintiff was shoplifting. The Court concluded that Plaintiff had "utterly failed to buttress his conclusory allegations with any facts that would support an inference of racial animus" on the part of any of the defendants.

Plaintiff never bothered filing an amended complaint. Consequently, the motion to dismiss resolved the case in months, not years. Moreover, the client did not have to participate in the time-consuming and intrusive discovery process or pay even a token amount in settlement. Perhaps most importantly, the client was able to protect its good reputation by having the Court recognize that, even if the plaintiff's factual allegations were assumed to be true, the removal of the plaintiff from the store was not motivated by racial animus, but rather, was "prompted by the belief that plaintiff's actions were consistent with attempted shoplifting."

Of course, all matters are decided on their own particular facts or merits, and, because each case is different and litigation is inherently unpredictable, the past record is no assurance of reaching a favorable result in any future case. For further information or to discuss the defense of a similar matter, call Steve Schwinn, Esq., at 703-246-0900.