769 F.2d 817 (1st Cir. 1985), 84-1934, Isaac v. Harvard University

Docket Nº:84-1934.
Citation:769 F.2d 817
Party Name:Ephraim ISAAC, Plaintiff, Appellant, v. HARVARD UNIVERSITY, Defendant, Appellee.
Case Date:July 26, 1985
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

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769 F.2d 817 (1st Cir. 1985)

Ephraim ISAAC, Plaintiff, Appellant,


HARVARD UNIVERSITY, Defendant, Appellee.

No. 84-1934.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

July 26, 1985

Heard May 8, 1985.

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Edward Greer, Cambridge, Mass., for plaintiff, appellant.

Barbara Lipsky, Washington, D.C., with whom Johnny J. Butler, Acting Gen. Counsel, and Vincent Blackwood, Asst. Gen. Counsel, Washington, D.C., were on brief for E.E.O.C., amicus curiae.

Jane G. Rocamora, Oakland City, Ind., on brief for Nat. Council for Black Studies, Inc., amicus curiae.

Richard P. Ward, Boston, Mass., with whom Ropes & Gray, Boston, Mass. and Robert B. Donin, Cambridge, Mass., Office of the Gen. Counsel, Harvard University, were on brief for appellee.

Before COFFIN and TORRUELLA, Circuit Judges, and WYZANSKI, [*] Senior District Judge.

COFFIN, Circuit Judge.

Appellant Ephraim Isaac filed a charge of employment discrimination against appellee Harvard University under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). The district court, 603 F.Supp. 22, interpreted section 706 of Title VII in such a way as to find that Isaac's charge was filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) after the statutory deadline of 300 days, and it granted defendant's motion for summary judgment. Appellant challenges the district court's construction of the statute and seeks reversal of the summary judgment. He also appeals the district court's denial of a discovery motion and refusal to allow him to amend his complaint. We affirm the refusal of the proffered amendment, but reverse the summary judgment ruling and remand for further consideration of the discovery motion.


The main issue in this case is one of statutory construction. Accordingly, we begin with a brief look at the federal statutory framework that governs the filing of employment discrimination complaints. In states which have their own statutes similar to Title VII, such as Massachusetts,

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Title VII requires that a complaint be filed with the EEOC within 300 days after the alleged discriminatory act. Section 706(e), 42 U.S.C. Sec. 2000e-5(e). Title VII also requires that the claim be considered by the state employment discrimination agency before it can be filed with the EEOC. Section 706(c), 42 U.S.C. Sec. 2000e-5(c). To help claimants comply with this "deferral" requirement, the EEOC will transmit to the state agency any claim which it receives from individuals who did not first file under state law, which is what occurred in this case. See Love v. Pullman, 404 U.S. 522, 92 S.Ct. 616, 30 L.Ed.2d 679 (1972). The claim with the EEOC is held in "suspended animation", id. at 526, 92 S.Ct. at 618, until after the period of deferral specified by section 706(c), and then it is automatically deemed filed with the federal agency. Under section 706(c)'s deferral provision, this automatic filing may not occur until either state proceedings have been terminated or 60 days have passed since the filing with the state agency. Taken together, the deferral and deadline provisions of Title VII mean, first, that a charge filed with a state agency by the 240th day after an alleged violation always will be timely under federal law because the 60-day deferral period will run within the 300-day limitation period, and second, that a charge submitted after the 240th day will be timely only if the state "terminates" its proceedings by the 300th day.

On June 27, 1975, Isaac was told that he had not been recommended for tenure in the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard. He filed his charge of discrimination with the EEOC on February 23, 1976, 241 days later. On March 4, 1976, the 251st day since the alleged discriminatory act, the EEOC sent a copy of Isaac's charge to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) so that it could review the claim first, pursuant to section 706(c)'s deferral requirement. On March 16, Day 263, the EEOC received from the MCAD a form stating that the MCAD would not process the charge. The EEOC then began its own proceedings and, on February 23, 1979, made a finding of "reasonable cause" on behalf of Isaac. 1 Subsequent attempts at conciliation failed and the EEOC gave Isaac a notice of right to sue on March 26, 1980. 2 He filed suit on June 24, 1980.

After some preliminary activity in the lawsuit, Harvard moved for summary judgment on the ground that Isaac's filing with the EEOC was untimely. The district court denied the motion, finding that the Massachusetts proceedings had terminated on March 16, 1976, when the MCAD told the EEOC it would not process the charge, and that Isaac's official filing with the EEOC had therefore occurred on Day 263 after he first learned of the tenure denial. On reconsideration, however, the court granted Harvard's motion for summary judgment. It based its new ruling on documents submitted by Harvard showing that the MCAD had not reached a final disposition of Isaac's case on March 16, 1976. In particular, Harvard demonstrated that on March 7, 1979, two weeks after the EEOC had found "reasonable cause", the MCAD had issued its own finding of "probable cause". Much later, on June 28, 1984, the MCAD had written to Isaac asking about the status of his case. Isaac's lawyer had responded by asking that his file remain open and requesting that a public hearing be scheduled. In a reply, the MCAD had denied the requested hearing, explaining that it routinely suspends its proceedings in cases in which a complainant has filed a federal suit. The MCAD had emphasized, however, that the case was not closed and that Isaac could renew

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his request for a hearing at the conclusion of his federal court case.

This exchange of correspondence convinced the district court that state proceedings had not been "terminated" under section 706(c) and that the EEOC complaint could not be deemed filed until 60 days after the MCAD had received Isaac's complaint. That meant that Isaac's complaint with the EEOC was not filed until the 311th day after the alleged discriminatory act, too late under section 706(e). For that reason, the court granted Harvard's motion for summary judgment and dismissed Isaac's complaint on the merits. 3


Everyone in this case agrees that Isaac's EEOC complaint was untimely unless the MCAD proceedings were "terminated" within 300 days after he learned that he had been denied tenure. Isaac argues that the MCAD's act of referring the complaint back to the EEOC constituted "termination" under section 706(c), and he is supported by the EEOC, which filed an amicus brief on his behalf. Harvard contends that nothing short of total relinquishment of the case fulfills the statutory requirement.

A preliminary principle of statutory construction which the United States Supreme Court has endorsed repeatedly in recent cases is that a court may look beyond statutory language that is unambiguous only in "extraordinary" circumstances, Garcia v. United States, --- U.S. ----, 105 S.Ct. 479, 482-83, 83 L.Ed.2d 472 (1984); Russello v. United States, 464 U.S. 16, 104 S.Ct. 296, 299, 78 L.Ed.2d 17 (1983); United States v. Turkette, 452 U.S. 576, 580, 101 S.Ct. 2524, 2527, 69 L.Ed.2d 246 (1981). See In re Smith & Wesson, 757 F.2d 431, 434-35 (1st Cir.1985); Cia. Petrolera Caribe, Inc. v. Arco Caribbean, Inc., 754 F.2d 404, 415 (1st Cir.1985). We have concluded that we need not apply this difficult standard because we find the words of section 706(c) to be ambiguous. 4

Section 706(c) states in relevant part: "[N]o [federal] charge may be filed ... before the expiration of sixty days after [state] proceedings have been commenced ... unless such proceedings have been earlier terminated...." In finding ambiguity, we deal with the two key words, "terminated", and "proceedings". We observe preliminarily that the former is not a term of art which radiates the accretions of legislative or judicial interpretation, and that the latter may indeed be a precisely defined term of art in a specific statute--or it may not. The first meaning of "terminate" listed in Webster's Third New International Dictionary is "to bring to an ending or cessation in time, sequence, or continuity ..." (emphasis added). Harvard argues, in effect, that the argument as to meaning comes to an end if one acknowledges that "terminate" means "come to an end". But, as the references in the foregoing definition to "time, sequence, or continuity" suggest,

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there is often a time element qualifying an "end". 5 We speak of ending negotiations despite the likely inevitability of their resumption, of terminating work on the job-site knowing that it will resume the next day, or of concluding the day's trial proceedings realizing that new witnesses will be on the stand in the morning.

When we consider the dictionary definition together with the language of the statute as a whole, we find ourselves in agreement with the EEOC that it does not strain normal English usage to equate "terminated" in this context with "halted" or "stopped". The statute plainly allows the EEOC to proceed in 60 days no matter what the state agency has done, so there is no rigid requirement that the state complete all of its business before the EEOC can act. "Terminated" in section 706(c) could, therefore, mean a temporary cessation, or an ending of a defined segment of action.

This possible meaning of a temporary, or narrowly defined cessation of action, is reinforced when we consider the term "proceeding". The Supreme Court has found that in various sections of Title VII, "the word 'proceeding,' or its plural form, is used to refer to all the different types of proceedings in which the statute is enforced, state and...

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