596 F.2d 1249 (5th Cir. 1979), 77-1502, Bernard v. Gulf Oil Co.

Docket Nº:77-1502.
Citation:596 F.2d 1249
Party Name:Wesley P. BERNARD et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. GULF OIL COMPANY et al., Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:June 15, 1979
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
 
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Page 1249

596 F.2d 1249 (5th Cir. 1979)

Wesley P. BERNARD et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

GULF OIL COMPANY et al., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 77-1502.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

June 15, 1979

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Stella M. Morrison, Port Arthur, Tex., Ulysses Gene Thibodeaux, Lake Charles, La., Charles E. Cotton, New Orleans, La., Barry L. Goldstein, Washington, D. C., Jack Greenberg, Patrick O. Patterson, New York City, for plaintiffs-appellants.

William H. Ng, Atty., Abner W. Sibal, Gen. Counsel, Joseph T. Eddins, Jr., Assoc. Gen. Counsel, Charles L. Reischel, Asst. Gen. Counsel, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Washington, D. C., for E.E.O.C., amicus curiae.

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Joseph H. Sperry, Wm. G. Duck, Kathleen M. Civins, Susan R. Sewell, U. S. Jones, Houston, Tex., for Gulf Oil.

Carl A. Parker, Michael D. Murphy, Port Arthur, Tex., for Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers, Etc.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.

Before THORNBERRY, GODBOLD and HILL, Circuit Judges.

THORNBERRY, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiffs-appellants in this case are present or retired employees of defendant Gulf and claim that Gulf and the defendant unions have discriminated against plaintiffs and similarly situated black employees in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e Et seq., and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The district court entered an order prohibiting the parties from communicating with class members and later granted defendants' motions for summary judgment.

Plaintiffs Bernard, Brown, and Johnson filed charges of discrimination with the EEOC in 1967 against Gulf and the local union. 1 The EEOC served copies of the charge on defendants in August, 1967, and issued a finding of reasonable cause in August, 1968. The EEOC actively pursued conciliation efforts with defendants until February, 1975, at which time it sent plaintiffs a notice stating that defendants did not wish to entertain conciliation discussions and advising plaintiffs that they could request a "Notice of Right to Sue" letter at any time. 2 The EEOC continued conciliation efforts on the basis of a Commissioner's charge filed in September 1967, which raised the same issues charged by plaintiffs. These efforts resulted in a conciliation agreement between the EEOC and Gulf in April, 1976. Plaintiffs filed this suit in May, 1976, and requested the Right-to-Sue letters from the EEOC. The EEOC issued the letters to Bernard and Brown in June, 3 and plaintiffs amended their complaint to reflect this fact in July, 1976.

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Soon after they filed the complaint, plaintiffs' attorneys appeared at a meeting of Gulf employees, during which they discussed this case. As a result of this meeting, Gulf requested the court to enter an order restricting the parties' or counsels' communication with class members. Gulf accompanied this request with an unsworn assertion that plaintiffs' attorneys had told the employees at the meeting it would be against their interest to accept the back pay award offered pursuant to the conciliation agreement. Plaintiffs' attorneys adamantly denied that they had urged the employees to reject the conciliation agreement. The court granted Gulf's motion without making any findings. 4 Defendants then moved to dismiss the complaint. In November, 1976, the court ordered that the motion be treated as a motion for summary judgment, and granted summary judgment for defendants in January, 1977. Plaintiffs raise four issues on this appeal.

I.

The district judge dismissed plaintiffs' Title VII claim because plaintiffs failed to file suit within 90 days of receiving the first letter, which stated that conciliation efforts had failed and that plaintiffs could request a Notice-of-Right-to-Sue letter. The judge held "that the 90 day period for filing suit begins when the notice of failure of conciliation is sent by the EEOC." Since the trial court opinion in this case, however, this court has held differently. In Zambuto v. American Tel. & Tel. Co., 544 F.2d 1333 (5 Cir. 1977), a panel of this circuit noted that the statute imposing the 90 day limitation could be read to begin the 90 day period on receipt of a notice that the EEOC has either failed to file a civil action or has not arrived at a conciliation agreement. That court stated, however, that the limitations period does not begin to run until the EEOC has notified the claimant "of both the failure of conciliation and the EEOC's decision not to sue in order to indicate clearly that the administrative process has been completed." Id. at 1335. Accord Turner v. Texas Instruments, Inc., 556 F.2d 1349 (5 Cir. 1977); Page v. U. S. Indus., Inc., 556 F.2d 346 (5 Cir. 1977), Cert. denied, 434 U.S. 1045, 98 S.Ct. 890, 54 L.Ed.2d 796 (1978). Furthermore, the Zambuto panel held that the final paragraph of the initial letter informed Mrs. Zambuto that "the EEOC was awaiting (her) request for issuance of a right-to-sue letter. Implicit in this latter statement is the assurance that the 90 day period would not commence until this letter was requested and dispatched. Because this paragraph declared that further administrative action was contemplated by EEOC, it failed to furnish Mrs. Zambuto (or AT&T) with the form of notice required under § 2000e-5(f)(1) to start the 90 day period for filing suit." 544 F.2d at 1335. Because the two-letter procedure allowed the claimant to postpone filing suit, the Zambuto panel declared the procedure invalid. Because the use and wording of the two letters was "patently misleading," however, that panel made its ruling prospective only.

At oral argument, defendants conceded that the present case is directly controlled by Zambuto and the cases following it. Plaintiffs filed suit before the Zambuto decision, and the letters plaintiffs received are indistinguishable from those involved in Zambuto, Page, and Turner. As in Turner and Page, the first letter plaintiffs received informed them only that conciliation efforts had failed; it did not indicate that the EEOC had decided not to sue. Also, as in Page and Zambuto, the concluding paragraph of the first letter assured plaintiffs that the 90 day period would not commence until plaintiffs received the second letter. Because the letters to the plaintiffs in this case were as "patently misleading" as those in prior cases, the 90 day period for filing suit did not begin until receipt of the second letter. Plaintiffs filed suit within this period. Therefore, the district court erred in dismissing the individual Title VII claims of Bernard and Brown. Also, because the claims of these class representatives are

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properly before the court, the district court erred in dismissing the class claims and the claims of the other named plaintiffs who did not file a complaint with the EEOC. Wheeler v. American Home Prod., 563 F.2d 1233 (5 Cir. 1977); Oatis v. Crown Zellerbach Corp., 398 F.2d 496 (5 Cir. 1968).

II.

The district judge also granted summary judgment in favor of defendants on plaintiffs' § 1981 claim. The trial judge found that plaintiffs' complaint alleged only "the identical pattern of discrimination which was the subject of the Bernard, Brown and Johnson EEOC complaint, which pattern has long since been eliminated." In addition, the court found as a fact that there were no continuing acts of discrimination.

Defendants make two arguments in support of this holding. First they assert that the trial court properly granted summary judgment in their favor because plaintiffs failed to respond properly to defendants' summary judgment motion. Plaintiffs assert that defendants have discriminated in the past and presently continue to discriminate against blacks in hiring, assignment, promotion, training, recruiting, discipline, and discharge. Defendants argue that "appellants wholly failed to offer factual support for their assertions." Defendants-appellees brief at 18. Defendants misunderstand the summary judgment practice. Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56, the moving party has the initial burden of proving that there is no genuine issue of material fact. If the movant wishes to dispute the allegations of the complaint, he must do so through affidavits, documents, or other evidence. Unless and until the movant initially provides factual support for the summary judgment motion, the opposing party has no duty to respond to the motion or to present opposing evidence. Boazman v. Economics Lab., Inc., 537 F.2d 210 (5 Cir. 1976). In the present case, defendants presented a great number of affidavits with their summary judgment motion, but in none of the affidavits did defendants deny that they are discriminating against blacks. Therefore, the trial judge's ruling that there were no instances of continuing discrimination was unsupported by the summary judgment record. Defendants, as the parties requesting summary judgment, failed to meet their burden of showing the absence of any material issue of fact.

Defendants also argue that even if the facts plaintiffs allege are true, we must dismiss plaintiffs' § 1981 claim. In support of this contention, defendants argue primarily that the applicable statute of limitations is that provided by Tex.Rev.Civ.Stat.Ann. art. 5526, Johnson v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 491 F.2d 1364, 1379 (5 Cir. 1974), and that under Texas law, the statute of limitations begins to run when the elements necessary for the cause of action first coalesce, regardless of whether defendants later commit other acts of the same nature. Under defendants' theory, the statute of limitations would have expired on plaintiffs' claim two years after defendants began discriminating against...

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