Delaware State College v. Ricks, 79-939

Decision Date15 December 1980
Docket NumberNo. 79-939,79-939
Citation449 U.S. 250,101 S.Ct. 498,66 L.Ed.2d 431
PartiesDELAWARE STATE COLLEGE et al., Petitioners, v. Columbus B. RICKS
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

The Board of Trustees of petitioner Delaware State College formally voted to deny tenure to respondent professor on the basis of recommendations of the College's tenure committee and Faculty Senate. During the pendency of respondent's grievance before the Board's grievance committee, the Trustees on June 26, 1974, told him that pursuant to College policy he would be offered a 1-year "terminal" contract that would expire June 30, 1975. Respondent signed the contract, and on September 12, 1974, the Board notified him that it had denied his grievance. After the appropriate Delaware agency had waived its primary jurisdiction over respondent's employment discrimination charge under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), on April 28, 1975, accepted his complaint for filing. More than two years later, the EEOC issued a "right to sue" letter, and respondent filed this action in the District Court on September 9, 1977. The complaint alleged, inter alia, that the College had discriminated against him on the basis of his national origin in violation of both Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Title VII requires that a complaint be filed with the EEOC within 180 days (300 days under certain circumstances) "after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred," 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e). Under the applicable Delaware statute of limitations, cases under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 must be filed within three years of the unfavorable employment decision. The District Court dismissed both the respondent's claims as untimely. It held that the only unlawful employment practice alleged was the College's decision to deny respondent tenure, and that the limitations periods for both claims had commenced to run by June 26, 1974, when the Board officially notified him that he would be offered a 1-year "terminal" contract. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the limitations period for both claims did not commence to run until the "terminal" contract expired on June 30, 1975.

Held : Respondent's Title VII and § 1981 claims were untimely. Pp. 256-262.

(a) The allegations of the complaint do not support respondent's "continuing violation" argument that discrimination motivated the College not only in denying him tenure but also in terminating his employ- ment on June 30, 1975. The only discrimination alleged occurred-and the filing limitations periods therefore commenced-at the time the tenure decision was made and communicated to respondent. This is so even though one of the effects of the denial of tenure-the eventual loss of a teaching position-did not occur until later. Pp. 256-258.

(b) Nor can the final date of employment be adopted, for policy reasons and simplicity, as the date when the limitations periods commenced. Where, as here, the only challenged practice occurs before the date of termination of employment, the limitations periods necessarily commenced to run before that date. Pp. 259-260.

(c) The date when respondent was notified that his grievance had been denied, September 12, 1974, cannot be considered to be the date of the unfavorable tenure decision. The Board had made clear well before then that it had formally rejected respondent's tenure bid, and entertaining a grievance complaining of the tenure decision does not suggest that the prior decision was in any respect tentative. Nor does the pendency of a grievance, or some other method of collateral review of an employment decision, toll the running of the limitations periods, Electrical Workers v. Robbins & Myers, Inc., 429 U.S. 229, 97 S.Ct. 441, 50 L.Ed.2d 427. Pp. 260-261.

(d) The District Court's conclusion that the limitations periods had commenced to run by June 26, 1974, when the Board notified respondent that he would be offered a "terminal" contract, was not erroneous. In light of the earlier recommendations of the tenure committee and the Faculty Senate that respondent not receive tenure and the Board's formal vote to deny tenure, the conclusion that the College had established its official position-and made that position apparent to respondent-no later than June 26, 1974, was justified. Pp. 261-262.

605 F.2d 710, reversed and remanded.

Nicholas H. Rodriguez, Dover, Del., for petitioners.

Judith E. Harris, Philadelphia, Pa., for respondent.

Justice POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in this case is whether respondent, a college professor, timely complained under the civil rights laws that he had been denied academic tenure because of his national origin.

I

Columbus Ricks is a black Liberian. In 1970, Ricks joined the faculty at Delaware State College, a state institution attended predominantly by blacks. In February 1973, the Faculty Committee on Promotions and Tenure (the tenure committee) recommended that Ricks not receive a tenured position in the education department. The tenure committee, however, agreed to reconsider its decision the following year. Upon reconsideration, in February 1974, the committee adhered to its earlier recommendation. The following month, the Faculty Senate voted to support the tenure committee's negative recommendation. On March 13, 1974, the College Board of Trustees formally voted to deny tenure to Ricks.

Dissatisfied with the decision, Ricks immediately filed a grievance with the Board's Educational Policy Committee (the grievance committee), which in May 1974 held a hearing and took the matter under submission.1 During the pendency of the grievance, the College administration continued to plan for Ricks' eventual termination. Like many colleges and universities, Delaware State has a policy of not discharging immediately a junior faculty member who does not receive tenure. Rather, such a person is offered a "terminal" contract to teach one additional year. When that contract expires, the employment relationship ends. Adhering to this policy, the Trustees on June 26, 1974, told Ricks that he would be offered a 1-year "terminal" contract that would expire June 30, 1975.2 Ricks signed the contract without ob- jection or reservation on September 4, 1974. Shortly thereafter, on September 12, 1974, the Board of Trustees notified Ricks that it had denied his grievance.

Ricks attempted to file an employment discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on April 4, 1975. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 253, as amended, however, state fair employment practices agencies have primary jurisdiction over employment discrimination complaints. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(c). The EEOC therefore referred Ricks' charge to the appropriate Delaware agency. On April 28, 1975, the state agency waived its jurisdiction, and the EEOC accepted Ricks' complaint for filing. More than two years later, the EEOC issued a "right to sue" letter.

Ricks filed this lawsuit in the District Court on September 9, 1977.3 The complaint alleged, inter alia, that the College had discriminated against him on the basis of his national origin in violation of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981.4 The District Court sustained the College's motion to dismiss both claims as untimely. It concluded that the only unlawful employment practice alleged was the College's decision to deny Ricks' tenure, and that the limitations periods for both claims had commenced to run by June 26, 1974, when the President of the Board of Trustees officially notified Ricks that he would be offered a 1-year "terminal" contract. See n.2, supra. The Title VII claim was not timely because Ricks had not filed his charge with the EEOC within 180 days after that date. Similarly, the § 1981 claim was not timely because the lawsuit had not been filed in the District Court within the applicable 3-year statute of limitations.5

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed. 605 F.2d 710 (1979). It agreed with the District Court that Ricks' essential allegation was that he had been denied tenure illegally. Id., at 711. According to the Court of Appeals, however, the Title VII filing requirement, and the statute of limitations for the § 1981 claim, did not commence to run until Ricks' "terminal" contract expired on June 30, 1975. The court reasoned:

" '[A] terminated employee who is still working should not be required to consult a lawyer or file charges of discrimination against his employer as long as he is still working, even though he has been told of the employer's present intention to terminate him in the future.' " Id., at 712, quoting Bonham v. Dresser Industries, Inc., 569 F.2d 187, 192 (CA3 1977), cert. denied, 439 U.S. 821, 99 S.Ct. 87, 58 L.Ed.2d 113 (1978).

See Egelston v. State University College at Genesco, 535 F.2d 752 (CA2 1976); cf. Noble v. University of Rochester, 535 F.2d 756 (CA2 1976).

The Court of Appeals believed that the initial decision to terminate an employee sometimes might be reversed. The aggrieved employee therefore should not be expected to resort to litigation until termination actually has occurred. Prior resort to judicial or administrative remedies would be "likely to have the negative side effect of reducing that employee's effectiveness during the balance of his or her term. Working relationships will be injured, if not sundered, and the litigation process will divert attention from the proper fulfillment of job responsibilities." 605 F.2d, at 712. Finally, the Court of Appeals thought that a rule focusing on the last day of employment would provide a "bright line guide both for the courts and for the victims of discrimination." Id., at 712-713. It therefore reversed and remanded the case to the District Court for trial on the merits of Ricks' discrimination claims. We granted certiorari. 444 U.S. 1070, 100 S.Ct. 1012, 62 L.Ed.2d 751 (1980).

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