462 U.S. 650 (1983), 82-271, Chardon v. Fumero Soto

Docket Nº:No. 82-271.
Citation:462 U.S. 650, 103 S.Ct. 2611, 77 L.Ed.2d 74
Party Name:Carlos CHARDON, etc., et al., Petitioners v. Juan Fumero SOTO, et al.
Case Date:June 20, 1983
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 650

462 U.S. 650 (1983)

103 S.Ct. 2611, 77 L.Ed.2d 74

Carlos CHARDON, etc., et al., Petitioners

v.

Juan Fumero SOTO, et al.

No. 82-271.

United States Supreme Court.

June 20, 1983

Argued March 23, 1983.

[103 S.Ct. 2612] Syllabus[*]

SYLLABUS

After petitioner Puerto Rican educational officials had demoted respondent school employees and shortly before Puerto Rico's 1-year statute of limitations would have expired, a class action was filed in Federal District Court against petitioners on behalf of respondents, asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 arising out of the demotions. Subsequently, the District Court denied class certification on the ground that the class was insufficiently numerous. Respondents then filed individual actions under § 1983 asserting the same claims that had been asserted on their behalf in the class action. Each of the individual actions was filed more than one year after the claims accrued, even excluding the period during which the class action was pending, but less than one year after the denial of class certification. The individual actions were consolidated, and the District Court entered judgment on the merits for respondents. The Court of Appeals, while modifying the remedy in some respects, rejected petitioners' argument that respondents' claims were barred by the statute of limitations. Because there was no federal statute of limitations applicable to § 1983 claims, the court looked to Puerto Rican law to determine what the limitations period was, whether that period was tolled, and the effect of the tolling. The court concluded that, as a matter of Puerto Rican law, the statute of limitations was tolled as to the unnamed plaintiffs [103 S.Ct. 2613] during the pendency of the class action, and that the statute of limitations began to run anew when the tolling ceased upon the denial of class certification.

Held: Respondents' individual actions were timely. The parties agree that the limitations period was tolled during the pendency of the class action. The Court of Appeals correctly held that the limitations period began to run anew after the denial of class certification, as provided by Puerto Rican law. American Pipe & Construction Co. v. Utah, 414 U.S. 538, 94 S.Ct. 756, 38 L.Ed.2d 713--which held that certain federal antitrust treble damages claims were not time-barred under the statute of limitations prescribed in the Clayton Act because the statute had been suspended during the pendency of a related class action--did not establish a uniform federal rule of decision that mandates suspension rather than renewal whenever a federal class action tolls a statute of limitations. In that case, a particular federal statute provided the basis for deciding that the tolling had

Page 651

the effect of suspending the limitations period. No question of state law was presented. In a § 1983 action, however, Congress in 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (1976 ed., Supp. V) has specifically directed the courts, in the absence of controlling federal law, to apply state statutes of limitations and state tolling rules unless they are "inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." Here, the Court of Appeals turned to Puerto Rican law to determine the tolling effect of the class action. Its decision on this issue is consistent with the rationale of both American Pipe and Board of Regents v. Tomanio, 446 U.S. 478, 100 S.Ct. 1790, 64 L.Ed.2d 440 where it was held that a § 1983 claim was barred by New York's statute of limitations, because New York law did not provide for tolling of the statute during the pendency of a related, but independent, cause of action. Since the application of the Puerto Rican rule gave unnamed class members the same protection as if they had filed actions in their own names which were subsequently dismissed, the federal interest, set forth in American Pipe, in assuring the efficiency and economy of the class action procedure is fully protected. Until Congress enacts a federal statute of limitations to govern § 1983 litigation, federal courts must continue the practice of "limitations borrowing" outlined in Tomanio. Pp. 2615-2619.

681 F.2d 42 (1st Cir.1982), affirmed.

COUNSEL

John G. DeGooyer argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were K. Martin Worthy, Stephen L. Humphrey, Hector Reichard De Cardona, andEduardo Castillo Blanco.

Sheldon H. Nahmod argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief wasJaime R. Nadal Arcelay.

John DeGooyer, Washington, D.C., for petitioners.

Sheldon Nahmod, Chicago, Ill., for respondents.

OPINION

Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners, Puerto Rican educational officials, demoted respondents from nontenured supervisory positions to teaching or lower-level administrative posts in the public school system because of respondents' political affiliations. Shortly before Puerto Rico's one-year statute of limitations would have expired, a class action was filed against petitioners on respondents'

Page 652

behalf under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Subsequently class certification was denied because the class was not sufficiently numerous. The parties agree that the statute of limitations was tolled during the pendency of the § 1983 class action, but they disagree as to the effect of the tolling. 1 Did the one-year period begin to run anew when class certification was denied, or was it merely suspended during the pendency of the class action? We must decide whether the answer [103 S.Ct. 2614] is provided by Puerto Rican law or by federal law.

On or after June 17, 1977, each of the 36 respondents2 received a written notice of demotion. On Monday, June 19, 1978, Jose Ortiz Rivera, suing on behalf of respondents and various other demoted and discharged employees, filed a class action against petitioners asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and under certain Puerto Rican statutes. On August 21, 1978, the District Court denied class certification on the ground that the membership of the class was not so numerous that joinder was impracticable. App. 16a-17a. In January 1979, the respondents and a number of other unnamed class members filed individual actions under § 1983

Page 653

asserting the same constitutional claim that Ortiz Rivera had previously advanced on their behalf. App. 2a-4a. 3 Each of respondents' individual actions was filed more than one year after the claims accrued, even excluding the period during which the class action was pending, but less than one year after the denial of class certification. Thus, if the running of the limitations period was merely suspended by the class action, then respondents' actions are time-barred. If it began to run anew, these actions are timely.

Fifty-five individual actions were consolidated for trial on the liability issue in January 1981. The jury found against petitioners, and the District Court entered judgment ordering reinstatement with back pay. 514 F.Supp. 339 (PR 1981); App. 108a-111a, 114a-116a, 121a-124a. On appeal, the Court of Appeals modified the remedy in some respects, reversing the award of back pay on Eleventh Amendment grounds and ordering some of the individual cases dismissed as time-barred. It rejected petitioners' argument that the claims of the 36 respondents were barred by the statute of limitations. Rivera Fernandez v. Chardon, 681 F.2d 42 (CA1 1982); App. 158a. 4

Page 654

Because there is no federal statute of limitations applicable to § 1983 claims, the Court of Appeals looked to Puerto Rican law to determine what the limitations period is, whether that period was tolled, and the effect of the tolling. The parties do not dispute the court's conclusion that civil rights actions are governed by the one-year period specified in Title 31, § 5298(2) of the Puerto Rican Code. Nor do petitioners challenge [103 S.Ct. 2615] the court's conclusion that the statute was tolled during the pendency of the Rivera class action, although they do disagree with the court's reasons.

The Court of Appeals noted that in Puerto Rico it is well settled that the filing of an action on behalf of a party tolls the statute with regard to that party's identical causes of action. P.R.Laws Ann., tit. 31, § 5303. It recognized, however, that the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico had not ruled on the question whether a class action would toll the statute for identical claims of the unnamed plaintiffs. It noted that Puerto Rico had modeled its class action procedures after the federal practice, and that in American Pipe & Construction Co. v. Utah, 414 U.S. 538, 94 S.Ct. 756, 38 L.Ed.2d 713 (1974), this Court had interpreted the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to permit a federal statute of limitations to be tolled between the filing of an asserted class action and the denial of class certification. It concluded that, as a matter of Puerto Rican law, the Puerto Rican Supreme Court would also hold that the statute of limitations was tolled as to unnamed plaintiffs during the pendency of a class action. 681 F.2d, at 50. 5

Page 655

In deciding what effect the tolling would have, however, the court did not apply the same rule as this Court had applied in American Pipe. In that case the controlling limitations period was established by a federal statute, the Clayton Act, that expressly provided for suspension when the period was tolled, 414 U.S., at 560-561, 94 S.Ct., at 769-770. In this § 1983 case, however, the Court of Appeals concluded that Puerto Rican law determined the length of the applicable statute of limitations, governed whether the limitations period would be tolled during the pendency of the class action, and established the effect of the tolling. Under the law of Puerto Rico the statute...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP