209 F.3d 552 (6th Cir. 2000), 98-5971, Graham-Humphreys v Memphis Brooks Museum of Art

Docket Nº:98-5971, 98-6098
Citation:209 F.3d 552
Case Date:April 06, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

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209 F.3d 552 (6th Cir. 2000)




Nos. 98-5971, 98-6098


April 6, 2000

Argued: September 22, 1999

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee at Memphis. No. 96-02639--Jon Phipps McCalla, District Judge.

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G. Hite McLean, Jr. (argued and briefed), Memphis, Tennessee, for Plaintiff-Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

Kirk A. Caraway (briefed), Martin F. Thompson (argued and briefed), Allen, Scruggs, Sossaman & Thompson, Memphis, Tennessee, for Defendant-Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

Before: Krupansky and Norris, Circuit Judges; Gwin,[*] District Judge.


Krupansky, Circuit Judge.

In case no. 98-5971, the plaintiff-appellant Gwendolyn T. Graham-Humphreys ("Graham-Humphreys") has appealed the district court's summary dismissal, as barred by statutory limitations, of her gender-based employment discrimination complaint anchored in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ("Title VII"). In case no. 98-6098, the defendant-appellee Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Inc. ("Brooks" or "the museum") has cross-appealed the trial court's rejection of its motions (1) to quash the plaintiff's summons for technical defects and (2) to dismiss the action for failure to timely serve valid process; and has concordantly challenged the trial court's retroactive curative amendment of the deficient summons.

On March 4, 1994, Brooks retained the plaintiff, an unmarried woman, to serve as its Deputy Director of Corporate Relations. In that capacity, Graham-Humphreys was responsible for promoting corporate financial sponsorship of the museum. While so employed and still single, the plaintiff became pregnant. Subsequently, on January 3, 1995, she married Anderson Humphreys. Three days later, on January 6, 1995, Graham-Humphreys gave birth to a daughter. Immediately thereafter, the plaintiff began a company-authorized voluntary twelve-week unpaid maternity leave of absence.

During the second week of February, 1995, while on maternity leave, Graham-Humphreys received a telephone call from Chuck Beegle ("Beegle"), the museum's Chief Operations Officer. He informed her that, because available funding had

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been exhausted, her position with the museum had been eliminated. Nonetheless, on April 3, 1995, upon the expiration of her scheduled twelve-week absence, Graham-Humphreys reported for work at the museum. Brooks' Director, E.A. Carmean ("Carmean"), then personally confirmed that her former post at the museum no longer existed. Nevertheless, within several days of that conversation, Beegle counseled Graham-Humphreys, via telephone, that she should "sit tight" while the museum resolved whether she would eventually be recalled from "layoff" status.

On approximately April 16, 1995, Graham-Humphreys discovered, at the front door of her residence, a copy of an unfavorable written assessment of her job performance, which had been executed by Carmean, purportedly on December 30, 1994. That report revealed that the plaintiff had scored only 27 quality points on a 60 point scale. The reviewer had opined that "deficiencies [were] evident" in the plaintiff's judgment, initiative, reliability, perseverance, and stability; and additionally noted her failure to recruit new commercial donors. At no time thereafter did Brooks restore the plaintiff's employment.

On August 24, 1995, Graham-Humphreys instigated a formal administrative charge of employment discrimination against the museum before the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") and the Tennessee Human Rights Commission ("THRC"), wherein she alleged that "I believe I have been discriminated against because of my sex, female and pregnancy in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended." However, the EEOC/THRC took no action on her complaint. On February 28, 1996, the claimant requested, in writing, that the EEOC issue her a Right-to-Sue ("RTS") notice. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(1). The plaintiff has conceded that she expected to receive that official document via United States mail. Additionally, her February 28, 1996 letter to the EEOC disclosed that her attorney, Gail Mathes, would soon request a copy of her claim file.

In response to her request, the EEOC on March 7, 1996 generated Graham-Humphreys' RTS memorial, and posted it, via United States certified mail, to her residential address of record at 4741 Mint Drive, Memphis, Tennessee 38117 ("Mint Drive"). Graham-Humphreys resided at that location at least between February 1996 through March 1996. On Friday, March 8, 1996, Postal Carrier Danny Stafford unsuccessfully attempted delivery of the complainant's RTS letter at her Mint Drive address. The mailman then deposited, at that residence, a form Postal Service attempt-to-deliver notification, which stated that a certified letter addressed to the plaintiff could be claimed at the local post office. That postal notice related the address, telephone number, and business hours of the nearby branch facility. Graham-Humphreys received Stafford's advisory notice on March 8, 1996, but she took no responsive action.

Five days later, on Wednesday, March 13, 1996, in conformity with standard Postal Service practices, the letter handler deposited a second, and final, notice of attempted delivery at Mint Drive. That document explicitly cautioned that failure to claim the certified envelope on or prior to Saturday, March 23, 1996, would prompt its return to the sender. Graham-Humphreys received that notification on March 13, 1996. Ignoring that message as well, the complainant neglected to retrieve her certified letter by the stated March 23, 1996 deadline.

Accordingly, on Tuesday, March 26, 1996, the Postal Service returned it, stamped "unclaimed," to the issuing EEOC office. Two days later, on Thursday, March 28, 1996, as a courtesy, an EEOC employee alerted Graham-Humphreys by telephone that her RTS document had been issued and posted, but had been returned as an unclaimed certified

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dispatch1. Later that day, the plaintiff personally appeared at the EEOC district headquarters to accept her RTS authorization.2 Upon the EEOC's release of that document to her, Graham-Humphreys executed an acknowledgment of receipt, which stated: "I, Gwendolyn Tabb Graham-Humphreys received my copy of the Notice of Right to Sue dated 3/7/96 for my charge #250952044 today in the Memphis District Office of EEOC." In turn, the subject RTS letter advised, in part:

This is your NOTICE OF RIGHT TO SUE. It is issued at your request. If you intend to sue the respondent(s) named in your charge, YOU MUST DO SO WITHIN NINETY (90) DAYS OF YOUR RECEIPT OF THIS NOTICE: OTHERWISE YOUR RIGHT TO SUE IS LOST. (Capitalizations in original).

Between March 28, 1996 and mid-June, 1996, attorney Mathes endeavored, unsuccessfully, to negotiate a resolution of Graham-Humphreys' claim, by means which included a June 4, 1996 settlement proposal letter addressed to Carmean. On June 21, 1996, the plaintiff, purportedly acting pro se, inaugurated the instant Title VII action in federal district court. The record disclosed that Timothy Smith, an attorney in Mathes' firm, had drafted the complaint that initiated her federal lawsuit, for which Graham-Humphreys had paid $500. Two lawyers from Mathes' firm continued to advise Graham-Humphreys following the filing of her complaint, for which services she paid an additional $700 fee. On July 3, 1996, via Mathes' office, the plaintiff lodged an amendment to her complaint in which she requested $100,000 in compensatory damages and demanded a jury trial. The plaintiff has acknowledged that she knew that her court case had to be instituted within a legally prescribed period, although she "just relied on [her] attorneys to kind of guide [her] along on that."

Mathes and Graham-Humphreys did not memorialize their attorney-client relationship in writing. At some point after the filing of the July 3, 1996 amended complaint, the Mathes firm stopped performing legal services for Graham-Humphreys. Subsequently, during September or October 1996, the plaintiff consulted

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Deborah Pagan, another counselor, who determined that service of the summons and amended complaint upon the museum had not yet been accomplished. Pagan furnished Graham-Humphreys with a completed original summons and several photocopies, and directed her to file the summons with the district court clerk's office for processing, and then to provide copies of all documents to a professional process server, Theresa Moses, for service upon a museum representative. At deposition, Graham-Humphreys did not relate Pagan's precise instructions, nor did she recall exactly what actions she (the plaintiff) had taken in the court clerk's office or which paper(s) she subsequently deposited in Moses' courthouse message box; she simply attested that she presented the documents at the courthouse and then "gave [Moses] whatever I was told I was supposed to give her." In any event, the summons which Moses served upon Director Carmean on October 18, 1996 (119 days following the complaint's filing)3 had not been properly conformed by the court clerk's office.4

On November 7, 1996, Brooks, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(4), moved to quash the summons for insufficiency and dismiss the action for failure to serve valid process within 120 days of the complaint's filing. After receiving the defendant's moving papers, the plaintiff telephoned Pagan, who referred her to a specialist in employment law identified simply as "Kathleen." Graham-Humphreys consulted Kathleen on several occasions. Subsequently, during a December 30, 1996 status conference, the plaintiff,...

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