421 U.S. 454 (1975), 73-1543, Johnson v. Railway Express Agency, Inc.

Docket Nº:No. 73-1543
Citation:421 U.S. 454, 95 S.Ct. 1716, 44 L.Ed.2d 295
Party Name:Johnson v. Railway Express Agency, Inc.
Case Date:May 19, 1975
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 454

421 U.S. 454 (1975)

95 S.Ct. 1716, 44 L.Ed.2d 295



Railway Express Agency, Inc.

No. 73-1543

United States Supreme Court

May 19, 1975

Argued December 11, 1974




The timely filing of an employment discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, pursuant to § 706 of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, does not toll the running of the limitation period applicable to an action, based on the same facts, brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Thus, in this case, where petitioner waited over 3 1/2 years after his cause of action for racial employment discrimination accrued before instituting an action under § 1981, that suit is time-barred by the one-year limitation period imposed by applicable state law notwithstanding the fact that petitioner had filed the Title VII charge before that limitation period had expired. Pp. 457-467.

489 F.2d 525, affirmed.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, and in Parts I-III of which DOUGLAS, BRENNAN, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which DOUGLAS and BRENNAN, JJ., joined, post, p. 468.

Page 455

BLACKMUN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the issue whether the timely filing of a charge of employment discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), pursuant to § 706 of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 259, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5, tolls the running of the period of limitation applicable to an action, based on the same facts, instituted under 42 U.S.C. § 1981.


Petitioner, Willie Johnson, Jr., is a Negro. He started to work for respondent Railway Express Agency, Inc., now, by change of name, REA Express, Inc. (REA), in Memphis, Tenn. in the spring of 1964 as an express handler. On May 31, 1967, while still employed by REA, but now as a driver, rather than as a handler, petitioner, with others, timely filed with the EEOC a charge that REA was discriminating against its Negro employees with respect to seniority rules and job assignments. He also charged the respondent unions, Brotherhood of Railway Clerks Tri-State Local and Brotherhood of Railway [95 S.Ct. 1718] Clerks Lily of the Valley Local, with maintaining racially segregated memberships (white and Negro respectively). Three weeks later, on June 20, REA terminated petitioner's employment. Petitioner then amended his charge to include an allegation that he had been discharged because of his race.

The EEOC issued its "Final Investigation Report" on December 22, 1967. App. 14a. The report generally supported petitioner's claims of racial discrimination. It was not until more than two years later, however, on March 31, 1970, that the Commission rendered its decision finding reasonable cause to believe petitioner's charges. And 9 1/2 more months went by before the

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EEOC, on January 15, 1971, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 200e-5(e), as it then read, gave petitioner notice of his right to institute a Title VII civil action against the respondents within 30 days.1

After receiving this notice, petitioner encountered some difficulty in obtaining counsel. The United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, on February 12, 1971, permitted petitioner to file the right-to-sue letter with the court's clerk as a complaint, in satisfaction of the 30-day requirement. The court also granted petitioner leave to proceed in forma pauperis, and it appointed counsel to represent him. On March 18, counsel filed a "Supplemental Complaint" against REA and the two unions, alleging racial discrimination on the part of the defendants, in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Act and of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The unions and REA respectively moved for summary judgment or, in the alternative, for dismissal of all claims.

The District Court dismissed the § 1981 claims as barred by Tennessee's one-year statute of limitations. Tenn.Code Ann. § 28-304 (Supp. 1974).2 Petitioner's remaining claims were dismissed on other grounds.3

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In his appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, petitioner, with respect to his § 1981 claims, argued that the running of the one-year period of limitation was suspended during the pendency of his timely filed administrative complaint with the EEOC under Title VII. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument. 489 F.2d 525 (1973). See also Jenkins v. General Motors Corp., 354 F.Supp. 1040, 1045-1046 (Del.1973). Because of an apparent conflict between that ruling, and language and holdings in cases from other Circuits,4 we granted certiorari restricted to the limitation issue. [95 S.Ct. 1719] We invited the Solicitor General to file a brief as amicus curiae expressing the views of the United States. 417 U.S. 929 (1974).


A. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted

to assure equality of employment opportunities by eliminating those practices and devices that discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co., 415 U.S. 36, 44 (1974). It creates statutory rights against invidious

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discrimination in employment and establishes a comprehensive scheme for the vindication of those rights.

Anyone aggrieved by employment discrimination may lodge a charge with the EEOC. That Commission is vested with the

authority to investigate individual charges of discrimination, to promote voluntary compliance with the requirements of Title VII, and to institute civil actions against employers or unions named in a discrimination charge.

415 U.S. at 44. Thus, the Commission itself may institute a civil action. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(1) (1970 ed., Supp. III). If, however, the EEOC is not successful in obtaining "voluntary compliance" and, for one reason or another, chooses not to sue on the claimant's behalf, the claimant, after the passage of 180 days, may demand a right-to-sue letter and institute the Title VII action himself without waiting for the completion of the conciliation procedures. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(1) (1970 ed., Supp. III). See H.R.Rep. No. 92-238, p. 12 (1971); McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).

In the claimant's suit, the federal district court is empowered to appoint counsel for him, to authorize the commencement of the action without the payment of fees, costs, or security, and even to allow an attorney's fee. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(1) (1970 ed., Supp. III) and 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). Where intentional engagement in unlawful discrimination is proved, the court may award backpay and order "such affirmative action as may be appropriate." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(g) (1970 ed., Supp. III). The backpay, however, may not be for more than the two-year period prior to the filing of the charge with the Commission. Ibid. Some District Courts have ruled that neither compensatory nor punitive damages may be awarded in the Title VII suit.5

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Despite Title VII's range and its design as a comprehensive solution for the problem of invidious discrimination in employment, the aggrieved individual clearly is not deprived of other remedies he possesses, and is not limited to Title VII in his search for relief.

[T]he legislative history of Title VII manifests a congressional intent to allow an individual to pursue independently his rights under both Title VII and other applicable state and federal statutes.

Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co., 415 U.S. at 48. In particular, Congress noted

that the remedies available to the individual under Title VII are coextensive with the indiv[i]dual's right to sue under the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and that the two procedures augment each other, and are not mutually exclusive.

H.R.Rep. No. 92-238, p. 19 (1971). See also S.Rep. No. 9215, p. 24 (1971). Later, in considering the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, the Senate rejected an [95 S.Ct. 1720] amendment that would have deprived a claimant of any right to sue under § 1981. 118 Cong.Rec. 3371-3373 (1972).

B. Title 42 U.S.C. § 1981, being the present codification of § 16 of the century-old Civil Rights Act of 1870, 16 Stat. 144, on the other hand, on its face relates primarily to racial discrimination in the making and enforcement of contracts. Although this Court has not specifically so held, is well settled among the Federal Courts of Appeals6 -- and we now join them -- that § 1981

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affords a federal remedy against discrimination in private employment on the basis of race. An individual who establishes a cause of action under § 1981 is entitled to both equitable and legal relief, including compensatory and, under certain circumstances, punitive damages. See, e.g., Caperci v. Huntoon, 397 F.2d 799 (CA1), cert. denied, 393 U.S. 940 (1968); Mansell v. Saunders, 372 F.2d 573 (CA5 1967). And a backpay award under § 1981 is not restricted to the two years specified for backpay recovery under Title VII.

Section 1981 is not coextensive in its coverage with Title VII. The latter is made inapplicable to certain employers. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(b) (1970 ed., Supp. III). Also, Title VII offers assistance in investigation, conciliation, counsel, waiver of court costs, and attorneys' fees, items that are unavailable at least under the specific terms of § 1981.


Petitioner, and the United States a amicus curiae, concede, as they must, the independence of the avenues of relief respectively available under Title VII and the older § 1981. See Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., 392 U.S. 409, 416-417, n. 20 (1968). Further, it has been noted that the filing of a Title VII charge and resort to Title VII's administrative machinery are...

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