Burnett v. Grattan

Decision Date27 June 1984
Docket NumberNo. 83-264,83-264
Citation468 U.S. 42,104 S.Ct. 2924,82 L.Ed.2d 36
PartiesCalvin W. BURNETT, etc., et al., Petitioners, v. James R. GRATTAN and Adrienne S. Hedman
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Respondents filed an action in a Maryland state court against petitioner officers of the state college where respondents were employed, claiming employment discrimination in violation of, inter alia, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983, 1985, and 1986 (Civil Rights Acts). Petitioners removed the action to Federal District Court. Because the Civil Rights Acts contain no statute of limitations, the District Court borrowed a 6-month limitations period from a Maryland statute that establishes a procedure for administrative resolution of employment discrimination complaints, and granted petitioners' motion to dismiss the action because the complaint had been filed more than six months after respondents' causes of action had accrued. The Court of Appeals found the 6-month period inappropriate, and, applying Maryland's 3-year statute of limitations for all civil actions for which a statutory limitation period is not otherwise provided, held that the action was not time-barred.

Held: While federal courts properly turn to state law for statutes of limitations in actions under the Civil Rights Acts, borrowing the limitations period from an administrative employment discrimination statute was inappropriate. Both the practical differences between litigation and an administrative proceeding and the divergence in the objectives of the federal causes of action and the state administrative procedure lead to this conclusion. On the one hand, the practical difficulties facing an aggrieved person in an action under the Civil Rights Acts involve such matters as recognizing the constitutional dimensions of the claimed injury, obtaining counsel or preparing to proceed pro se, establishing the amount of damages, and preparing legal documents. On the other hand, the sole responsibility of an aggrieved person who invokes the state administrative remedies is to make, sign, and file a complaint with the Human Relations Commission, which then has the burden of investigating and developing the case. And the goals of the Civil Rights Acts to compensate persons whose civil rights have been violated and to prevent the abuse of state power are far different from the goals of the state administrative employment procedure. The administrative scheme, including the short statute of limitations, encourages prompt identification, conciliation, and private settlement of employment disputes through the State Commission's intervention. Pp. 47-55.

710 F.2d 160, affirmed.

Paul F. Strain, Baltimore, Md., for petitioners.

Sheldon H. Laskin, Ellicott City, Md., for respondents.

Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether a state law, establishing a procedure for administrative resolution of employment discrimination complaints, provides an appropriate statute of limitations for actions brought under the Reconstruction-Era Civil Rights Acts, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 et seq. We hold that it does not.

I

Respondents James Grattan and Adrienne Hedman were employees of Coppin State College, a predominantly Negro college in Maryland. Their primary responsibility was to recruit students of diverse ethnic backgrounds to attend the school. App. 34-39. Respondents received notice in June 1976 that their contracts would not be renewed because the college "was not satisfied with the recruitment efforts of the Minority Affairs office." Id., at 34, 38. In response, respondents, who are white, filed complaints of racial discrimination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While those claims were pending, they filed suit in state court in February 1977, naming as defendants the petitioners in the present action—the president of the College, the vice president of student affairs, and the chairman and executive director of the board of trustees. In October 1981, on leave of the court,1 respondents filed an amended complaint, specifically alleging that they were victims of racial discrimination, and, in Hedman's case, gender discrimination, in violation of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981,2 1983,3 1985,4 1986,5 and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that their discharge also violated the First Amendment and various provisions of the Maryland Constitution. App. 11-33. Petitioners removed the action from state to federal court. Thereafter, they filed a motion to dismiss on the ground that respondents' claims were barred by the applicable statute of limitations. Id., at 39-40.

Because the federal statutes under which respondents sued do not themselves contain a statute of limitations, the District Court borrowed a limitations period from a state statute prohibiting discriminatory practices in employment. Md.Ann.Code, Art. 49B, § 9(a) (1979); 6 see App. to Pet. for Cert. 23, 34. The District Court identified a "commonality of purpose" between the federal rights asserted and the rights defined in the state statute, and concluded that it was reasonable to subject the federal claims to the 6-month statute of limitations on filing employment discrimination complaints with an administrative body, the Maryland Human Affairs Commission. Id., at 34-36. Because respondents' complaint had been filed more than six months after their cause of action accrued, the District Court dismissed the suit as time-barred.

The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, relying on its previous decision in McNutt v. Duke Precision Dental and Orthodontic Laboratories, Inc., 698 F.2d 676 (1983), found the 6-month period selected by the District Court inappropriate for suits brought under the Civil Rights Acts because the state law "governed the limitation of administrative proceedings which were informal, investigatory and conciliatory in nature." 710 F.2d 160, 162 (1983). The Court of Appeals applied Maryland's 3-year statute of limitations for all civil actions for which the Code does not otherwise provide a limitations period. Md.Cts. & Jud.Proc.Code Ann. § 5-101 (1984).7 Finding that Grattan's and Hedman's amended complaint stated claims that related back to the action originally filed in the Maryland court some eight months after their cause of action arose,8 the Court of Appeals held that the action was not time-barred, and remanded to the District Court.

We granted certiorari to resolve confusion in the Circuits regarding reliance upon a state administrative statute of limitations in a federal civil rights suit.9 464 U.S. 981, 104 S.Ct. 421, 78 L.Ed.2d 357 (1983). We now affirm.

II

The century-old Civil Rights Acts do not contain every rule of decision required to adjudicate claims asserted under them. In the absence of specific guidance, Congress has directed federal courts to follow a three-step process to borrow an appropriate rule. 42 U.S.C. § 1988.10 First, courts are to look to the laws of the United States "so far as such laws are suitable to carry [the civil and criminal civil rights statutes] into effect." Ibid. If no suitable federal rule exists, courts undertake the second step by considering application of state "common law, as modified and changed by the constitution and statutes" of the forum State. Ibid. A third step asserts the predominance of the federal interest: courts are to apply state law only if it is not "inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." Ibid.

A

The task before the courts in the present case was to identify a limitations period governing respondents' claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983, 1985, and 1986.11 The Civil Rights Acts do not provide the rule. Only 42 U.S.C. § 1986 contains a statute of limitations.12 Other sources of federal law are no more helpful. On several occasions, this Court has rejected arguments that a particular federal statute of limitations applied, O'Sullivan v. Felix, 233 U.S. 318, 324-325, 34 S.Ct. 596, 598-599, 58 L.Ed. 980 (1914) (rejecting federal statute of limitations for suits for a penalty, because civil actions under Civil Rights Act are remedial), or has implicitly rejected linkage with other federal statutes, emphasizing the independence of the remedial scheme established by the Reconstruction-Era Acts. See, e.g., Johnson v. Railway Express Agency, Inc., 421 U.S. 454, 459-461, 95 S.Ct. 1716, 1719-20, 44 L.Ed.2d 295 (1975) (§ 1981 and Title VII (Equal Employment Opportunity) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provide independent rights and remedies); Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., 392 U.S. 409, 416-417, and n. 20, 88 S.Ct. 2186, 2191, and n. 20, 20 L.Ed.2d 1189 (1968) (enactment of Title VIII (Fair Housing) of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 "had no effect upon § 1982"). It is now settled that federal courts will turn to state law for statutes of limitations in actions brought under these civil rights statutes. See, e.g., Chardon v. Fumero Soto, 462 U.S. 650, 655-656, 103 S.Ct. 2611, 2615-2616, 77 L.Ed.2d 74 (1983).

B

We have described in a variety of ways the task of a court when determining which of a set of arguably relevant state statutes of limitations should govern a suit brought under the Civil Rights Acts. For example, in Johnson v. Railway Express Agency, supra, 421 U.S., at 462, 95 S.Ct., at 1721, an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, we described the goal as that of identifying the "most appropriate" state statute of limitations. In Board of Regents v. Tomanio, 446 U.S. 478, 483-484, 100 S.Ct. 1790, 1794-1795, 64 L.Ed.2d 440 (1980), an action under § 1983, we suggested that the court should select "the state law of limitations governing an analogous cause of action." See also Johnson v. Railway Express Agency, supra, 421 U.S., at 469, 95 S.Ct., at 1724 ("that [period of limitations] which the State would apply if the action had been brought in a state court") (MARSHALL, J., concurring in part and...

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