361 F.3d 62 (1st Cir. 2004), 03-1530, Rathbun v. Autozone, Inc.

Docket Nº:03-1530.
Citation:361 F.3d 62
Party Name:Betsey E. RATHBUN, Plaintiff, Appellant, v. AUTOZONE, INC., Defendant, Appellee.
Case Date:March 18, 2004
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
 
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361 F.3d 62 (1st Cir. 2004)

Betsey E. RATHBUN, Plaintiff, Appellant,

v.

AUTOZONE, INC., Defendant, Appellee.

No. 03-1530.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

March 18, 2004

Heard Dec. 4, 2003.

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Stephen A. Rodio and Lynette Labinger, with whom Rodio & Brown, Ltd. and Roney & Labinger were on brief, for appellant.

Charles S. Kirwan and Charles S. Kirwan & Associates on brief for Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, Providence Human Relations Commission, Progreso Latino, Center for Hispanic Policy and Advocacy, Rhode Island Civil Rights Roundtable, and Rhode Island chapter of the National Employment Lawyers Association, amici curiae.

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Renee Gluth, with whom Tracy K. Hidalgo, Frilot, Partridge, Kohnke & Clements, L.C., and Joe Whelan were on brief, for appellee.

Michael E. Malamut on brief for New England Legal Foundation, amicus curiae.

Before BOUDIN, Chief Judge, SELYA, Circuit Judge, and STAHL, Senior Circuit Judge.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

In this employment discrimination case, the district court granted summary judgment in the employer's favor on both the plaintiff's failure-to-promote and unequal pay claims. Rathbun v. Autozone, Inc., 253 F.Supp.2d 226 (D.R.I.2003). The employee's ensuing appeal requires us to decide a series of questions, the most significant of which concerns the limitations period that governs employment discrimination actions brought under the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act of 1990 (RICRA), R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 42-112-1 to 41-112-2. We have had the benefit of briefing on this important issue not only from the parties but also from able amici on both sides (for whose help we are grateful). Having fully considered the matter, we hold that RICRA employment discrimination claims are subject to Rhode Island's three-year residual statute of limitations for actions involving injuries to the person and, accordingly, countermand the district court's application of a one-year limitations period.

We next consider the merits of the plaintiff's claims. Although our holding as to the appropriate rule of timeliness broadens the scope of her claims, we nonetheless affirm the district court's entry of summary judgment. Even when viewed through a widened lens, the evidence is insufficient to permit a reasonable finder of fact to resolve either her failure-to-promote or unequal pay claims favorably to her. Accordingly, we affirm the district court's entry of summary judgment.

I. BACKGROUND

We rehearse the facts in the light most agreeable to the party opposing the entry of summary judgment (here, the plaintiff), drawing all reasonable inferences to her behoof. Garside v. Osco Drug, Inc., 895 F.2d 46, 48 (1st Cir.1990).

A. Employment History.

At the times material hereto, plaintiff-appellant Betsey E. Rathbun worked for defendant-appellee AutoZone, Inc. or its predecessor in interest, Auto Palace. The district court's opinion contains a meticulous account of the appellant's relevant employment history, Rathbun, 253 F.Supp.2d at 229-30, and we offer only a brief sketch.

AutoZone operates a chain of retail stores selling automobile parts and accessories, and Auto Palace (now defunct) was in substantially the same business. In 1995, Auto Palace hired the appellant as a part-time cashier and assigned her to its Cranston, Rhode Island location. Her duties included running the cash register, stocking shelves, and assisting customers. Early in 1998, AutoZone purchased the Auto Palace chain and converted the stores to the AutoZone brand.

AutoZone organizes its store employees into four job classifications: (i) customer service representative (CSR); (ii) parts sales manager (PSM); (iii) assistant store manager (ASM); and (iv) store manager. At the time of the acquisition, AutoZone made the appellant a part-time CSR at a pay rate of $6.59/hr. In April of 1998, she became full-time at a rate of $6.92/hr. Her duties expanded to encompass the whole range of customer sales. She was not tasked with managerial duties but helped

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train several new employees in company policies and systems.

In the summer of 1998, the appellant began lobbying for a promotion to PSM. When her interest went unrequited, she approached her district manager, Jeff Mello, and voiced a suspicion that gender had played a role in AutoZone's unwillingness to move her up the corporate ladder. Mello pooh-poohed this suggestion and provided the appellant with a list of skills she should master in order to improve her qualifications for a PSM position.

The appellant received a promotion to the PSM rank and a raise to $8/hr. in September of 1999. From the time that AutoZone acquired Auto Palace until the date of her ascension, AutoZone filled five PSM vacancies (only two of which were filled after the appellant had applied for a promotion). Every successful candidate was a man.

Soon after her promotion to PSM, the appellant expressed an interest in becoming an ASM. She was passed over four times for ASM openings--each time in favor of a man (some of whom were new hires). The appellant remains a PSM.

B. Travel of the Case.

On November 16, 2000, the appellant filed a charge of discrimination with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights (the Commission). See R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-5-17 (making the filing of an administrative charge a precondition to suit under the Rhode Island Fair Employment Practices Act). Having obtained a right-to-sue letter, the appellant commenced a civil action in a Rhode Island state court. In her complaint, she charged that, due to her gender, AutoZone had unduly delayed her elevation to PSM, denied her a promotion to ASM, and paid her less than similarly situated males. All of her claims were grounded on two state statutes--the RICRA and the Rhode Island Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA), R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 28-5-1 to 28-5-42.

Citing the existence of diversity of citizenship and a controversy in the requisite amount, AutoZone removed the action to the federal district court. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332(a), 1441. After the completion of pretrial discovery, the district court granted an across-the-board summary judgment in AutoZone's favor. Rathbun, 253 F.Supp.2d at 236. The court applied the one-year FEPA statute of limitations, R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-5-17(a), to all the failure-to-promote claims (including those brought under the RICRA). The court reasoned that it would be anomalous for factually identical claims to be time-barred under the FEPA yet timely under the RICRA, and that, therefore, the state legislature must have intended a one-year limitations period to apply to both statutes. Rathbun, 253 F.Supp.2d at 231-34.

Since the appellant had filed her charge of discrimination with the state agency on November 16, 2000, the lower court's limitations decision meant that the court regarded as potentially actionable only those employment decisions that took place between November 16, 1999 and November 16, 2000. From this coign of vantage, the court concluded that the failure-to-promote claims could not successfully run the summary judgment gauntlet. Id. at 235-36. With respect to the unequal pay claim, the court treated the relevant events as constituting "a series of related, connected acts" within the meaning of the continuing violation doctrine. Id. at 231. On that basis, it deemed potentially actionable events outside the one-year limitations period. Id. Still, it found no evidentiary predicate sufficient to allow the unequal pay claim to proceed to trial. Id. at 235-36. This appeal followed.

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II. THE SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

We review the entry of summary judgment de novo. Garside, 895 F.2d at 48. Summary judgment is appropriate "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). Once the moving party avers the absence of genuine issues of material fact, the nonmovant must show, through materials of evidentiary quality, that such a dispute exists. A properly supported motion for summary judgment cannot be defeated by relying upon improbable inferences, conclusory allegations, or rank speculation. Mesnick v. Gen. Elec. Co., 950 F.2d 816, 822 (1st Cir.1991).

III. THE RICRA LIMITATIONS PERIOD

The threshold issue in this case involves the rule of prescription that applies to employment discrimination claims brought under the RICRA. The Rhode Island General Assembly enacted the RICRA in 1990. The statute does not contain a built-in statute of limitations. The court below was the first to attempt a definitive answer to the question of when an employment discrimination action brought under the RICRA should be deemed timely.

Where, as here, a state's highest court has not spoken on a matter of state substantive law, a federal court sitting in diversity must "ascertain the rule the state court would most likely follow under the circumstances, even if [its] independent judgment on the question might differ." Blinzler v. Marriott Int'l, Inc., 81 F.3d 1148, 1151 (1st Cir.1996). In that endeavor, the federal court may seek guidance from a wide range of sources, including but not limited to "analogous state court decisions, persuasive adjudications by courts of sister states, learned treatises, and public policy considerations identified in state decisional law." Id.

When a rights-creating statute is silent as to what limitations period should apply, the Rhode Island Supreme Court's practice has been to look first to residual statutes of limitations. See, e.g., Paul v. City of Woonsocket, 745 A.2d 169, 171-72...

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