818 F.2d 1126 (4th Cir. 1987), 86-2573, Felty v. Graves-Humphreys Co.

Docket Nº:86-2573.
Citation:818 F.2d 1126
Party Name:N. Brown FELTY, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. GRAVES-HUMPHREYS COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:May 21, 1987
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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818 F.2d 1126 (4th Cir. 1987)

N. Brown FELTY, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

GRAVES-HUMPHREYS COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 86-2573.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

May 21, 1987

Argued Jan. 6, 1987.

Rehearing and Rehearing En Banc Denied July 22, 1987.

Nate Lavinder Adams, III (Donald W. Huffman; Bird, Kinder & Huffman, on brief), for plaintiff-appellant.

William Paul Wallace, Jr. (Bayard E. Harris; Woods, Rogers & Hazelgrove, on brief), for defendant-appellee.

Before HALL and WILKINSON, Circuit Judges, and HAYNSWORTH, Senior Circuit Judge.

WILKINSON, Circuit Judge:

Brown Felty was dismissed from his job at the Graves-Humphreys Company. He later sued under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 29 U.S.C. Secs. 621-34. Graves-Humphreys moved for summary judgment on the ground that Felty had not filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within the statutory 180-day time limit. The case is now before us after a remand to the district court, in which we directed the district court to consider whether the doctrine of equitable estoppel would excuse plaintiff's failure to file a claim within the 180-day limit. The district court found that the doctrine of equitable estoppel did not apply because the employer's alleged conduct did not cause Felty to delay his EEOC filing.

We affirm.

I.

In 1982, the Graves-Humphreys Company underwent a substantial corporate reorganization which required a reduction in force. On November 12, 1982, Felty received notice that his last work day would be March 31, 1983, four and a half months later. Graves-Humphreys informed him that he would receive a bonus of four weeks pay if he worked through March 31 and that he would get paid time off for job interviews. Felty stated in his deposition,

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however, that Frances Yates, the Vice President and General Manager of the newly-formed company, warned him that if he discussed the terminations with anyone, he would be subject to immediate dismissal.

Understandably, Felty discussed his termination with at least one other employee anyway, and learned that the company was keeping a younger worker on the job. In February, he consulted an attorney about the possibility of an age discrimination suit; the attorney told him that more information was needed to support an age discrimination claim. In April, after Felty's employment ended, he returned to the attorney and provided information about the other employees who had been terminated. Felty directed his attorney not to file a claim at that time because he was concerned about whether his workman's compensation payments, which he was to receive until May 31, would be jeopardized. He finally filed a claim with the EEOC in June and filed this civil suit in August.

Defendant moved for summary judgment under 29 U.S.C. Sec. 626(d)(1), which requires the filing of a claim with the EEOC within 180 days as a prerequisite to a civil suit. In accordance with Chardon v. Fernandez, 454 U.S. 6, 102 S.Ct. 28, 70 L.Ed.2d 6 (1981) and Delaware State College v. Ricks, 449 U.S. 250, 101 S.Ct. 498, 66 L.Ed.2d 431 (1980), the district court ruled that the 180-day period began when Felty was given unequivocal notice of his termination on November 12 and expired in mid-May. Hence, Felty's claim was outside the time limit. The district court also found that the doctrine of equitable tolling did not excuse Felty's delay. The court therefore granted defendant's motion. Felty v. Graves-Humphreys, 604 F.Supp. 730 (W.D.Va.1985).

On appeal, this court agreed with the district court on the issue of equitable tolling, but remanded the case to the district court so that it could consider the issue of equitable estoppel. The earlier opinion explained, "Equitable tolling focuses on the plaintiff's excusable ignorance of the employer's discriminatory act. Equitable estoppel, in contrast, examines the defendant's conduct and the extent to which the plaintiff has been induced to refrain from exercising his rights." Felty v. Graves-Humphreys, 785 F.2d 516, 519 (4th Cir.1986).

On remand, the district court held an evidentiary hearing and determined that the doctrine of equitable estoppel did not apply because Felty's delay in filing his EEOC claim beyond the time limit was not a result of any improper actions by Graves-Humphreys. It thereupon granted summary judgment for the employer.

The district court based its determination on four undisputed facts. First, Felty testified that he had not filed a claim before his dismissal on March 31 because his attorney advised him that he did not have enough evidence to support a claim. Second, Felty testified that the delay after March 31 resulted from his concern for his worker's compensation. Third, Felty testified that he disregarded the company's order by discussing his termination with two attorneys and at least one fellow employee. Finally, Felty testified that if he had known in February that he was required to file an EEOC claim within the time limit, he would have done so. The district court found "unequivocally" that Felty's decision to delay filing his claim was not a result of any coercion by his employer.

II.

Felty argues that the district court erred in granting summary judgment on the equitable estoppel issue. The plaintiff's testimony, however, left no genuine issue of material fact as to whether the company had coerced Felty into delaying his claim beyond the 180-day limit. Hence, the grant of summary judgment was proper.

As a preliminary matter, we must set out the appropriate standard for reviewing the district court's decision. An appellate court generally reviews a grant of summary judgment de novo, applying the same standard as that applied by the district

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court itself. 1 Plaintiff cannot, however, defeat a summary judgment motion simply by invoking the magic words "equitable estoppel" and offering a bare allegation of employer coercion. The...

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