Felty v. Graves-Humphreys Co.

Decision Date22 July 1987
Docket NumberNo. 86-2573,GRAVES-HUMPHREYS,86-2573
Citation818 F.2d 1126
Parties43 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. 1507, 43 Empl. Prac. Dec. P 37,143 N. Brown FELTY, Plaintiff-Appellant, v.COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

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 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 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 Supreme Court has recently explained that "there is no issue for trial unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party. If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., --- U.S. ----, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2511, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986) (citations omitted). Unsupported speculation is not sufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion. Ash v. United Parcel Service, 800 F.2d 409, 411-12 (4th Cir.1986); Ross v. Communications Satellite Corp., 759 F.2d 355, 364 (4th Cir.1985).

Here the district court held an evidentiary hearing on the question of "whether Graves-Humphreys' actions improperly delayed Felty's EEOC complaint." This hearing, which bolstered the record upon summary judgment, was responsive to the terms of this court's remand, see 785 F.2d at 520. It also was an appropriate step on an issue, such as an equitable exception to the statutory limitations period, which is both preliminary and collateral to the underlying suit on the merits.

After the hearing, at which Felty testified at some length, the district court issued findings of fact. On summary judgment, such findings serve as a determination that a particular fact is not genuinely in dispute. Although such findings are not required on a summary judgment ruling, Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(a), the Supreme Court has emphasized that they are "extremely helpful to a reviewing court." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 106 S.Ct. at 2511 n. 6. We do not accord such findings the full measure of deference due after trial, see Anderson v. City of Bessemer, 470 U.S. 564, 105 S.Ct. 1504, 84 L.Ed.2d 518 (1985). To do so would intrude on the sphere reserved for the ultimate trier of fact, in this case the jury, 29 U.S.C. Sec. 626(c)(2). Recent cases of the Supreme Court have made increasingly clear, however, the affirmative obligation of the trial judge to prevent "factually unsupported claims and defenses" from proceeding to trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, --- U.S. ----, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). See also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, supra; Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Inc. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). Trial court findings are consistent with the role for summary judgment elaborated by the Supreme Court. At a minimum, findings of fact upon summary judgment afford us both a surer basis for appellate review and an indication of the care with which the summary judgment record was handled by the district court.

III.

Applying this standard, we uphold the district court's grant of summary judgment. In Price v. Litton Business Systems, 694 F.2d 963, 965-66 (4th Cir.1982), we explained the requirements of equitable estoppel:

The statute of limitations will not be tolled on the basis of equitable estoppel unless the employee's failure to file in timely fashion is the consequence either of a deliberate design by the employer or of actions that the employer should unmistakably have understood would cause the employee to delay filing his charge.

It has always been an element of estoppel that the plaintiff actually and reasonably rely on the alleged misconduct in foregoing an assertion of his rights. "One who fails to act diligently cannot invoke equitable principles to excuse that lack of diligence." Baldwin County Welcome Center v. Brown, 466 U.S. 147, 151, 104 S.Ct. 1723, 1725, 80 L.Ed.2d 196 (1984).

During his testimony before the district court on remand, Felty admitted three separate times that his delay in filing the claim did not result from improper conduct on the part of Graves-Humphreys. First, he testified that he did not file a complaint with the EEOC after meeting with his attorney in February of 1983 because his attorney told him "that it was too early really to do anything." The district court properly refused to hold Graves-Humphreys responsible for the advice...

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