Felty v. Graves-Humphreys Co.

Decision Date07 March 1986
Docket NumberGRAVES-HUMPHREYS,No. 85-1310,85-1310
Citation785 F.2d 516
Parties40 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. 447, 39 Empl. Prac. Dec. P 35,961 N. Brown FELTY, Appellant, v.COMPANY, Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

Donald W. Huffman (Nate L. Adams, III, Bird, Kinder & Huffman, Roanoke, Va., on brief), for appellant.

William P. Wallace, Jr. (Bayard E. Harris, Faith M. Wilson, Woods, Rogers & Hazlegrove, Roanoke, Va., on brief), for appellee.

Before HALL, MURNAGHAN, and WILKINSON, Circuit Judges.

K.K. HALL, Circuit Judge:

N. Brown Felty appeals from an order granting summary judgment for Graves-Humphreys Company ("Graves-Humphreys") in his action alleging a violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. Secs. 621-634, 604 F.Supp. 730. The issue for our consideration is whether Felty filed a charge of discrimination within 180 days of the "allegedly unlawful practice" as required by 29 U.S.C. Sec. 626(d)(1). The district court held that a timely charge had not been filed and that equitable tolling of the limitation period was not appropriate. Because we conclude that the district court failed to consider the applicability of equitable estoppel to the facts of this case, we reverse the judgment below and remand for further consideration.

I.

Felty was employed by Graves-Humphreys Inc., a distributor of athletic, industrial art and vocational education equipment, from 1939 to 1951, and continuously from 1954 until the Frank Paxton Corp. ("Paxton") acquired the company in February, 1982. Paxton formed the new corporation of Graves-Humphreys Company which employed Felty until his formal termination on March 31, 1983. At the time of his termination Felty was 60 years of age.

Between the acquisition of Graves-Humphreys by Paxton in February of 1982, and November 12, 1982, Frances Yates, Vice-President and General Manager of the newly-formed company, conducted a meeting in which she notified employees of the new organizational structure resulting from the acquisition and consequent terminations. During the meeting, a copy of an organizational chart containing the names, positions, and ages of certain employees was distributed to each employee. The stated purpose of the document was to inform employees of their reporting responsibility in the new hierarchy. When several employees questioned the notation of ages on the document, Yates indicated that the wrong chart had been distributed. A new document, identical to the first except that the ages of the employees were deleted, was then distributed.

On November 12, 1982, Yates conducted another meeting during which the employees were informed that there would be reductions in the work force in the future. After the general meeting, Yates met individually with each of the twelve persons who were to be terminated. The first person with whom Yates met privately was Felty. During the individual conference, Yates informed Felty of his termination, effective March 31, 1983, and informed him that the reason for his termination was the elimination of his position of buyer. Felty subsequently stated in his deposition that Yates warned him that if he discussed the terminations with anyone he would be subject to immediate dismissal.

Following the individual meetings, Yates gave each affected employee a memorandum entitled "Separation Arrangements." The memorandum offered certain inducements to encourage the employees to remain with the company until their termination dates. Among the benefits offered were an incentive plan through which the affected employee could earn a week's additional pay for each month the employee remained with Graves-Humphreys until the time of termination, extended insurance coverage, and time off for their employment searches.

Despite Yates' warning, on November 12, 1982, Felty discussed his pending termination with Harry Dooley, a younger friend and fellow employee in the Purchasing Department. 1 He learned at that time that Dooley was being retained. In Felty's deposition taken on March 2, 1984, he made the following statement concerning his conversation with Dooley:

Q Now, with respect to the basis for your charge, you indicated that you had been discriminated against because of your age because "a younger man, Mr. Harry Dooley, with less experience than I, was retained, but I was discharged."

Is that correct?

A Yes, sir.

Q You knew on November 12 that Mr. Dooley was being retained, did you not?

A Yes.

Q So, did you feel at that time that after having received notice of your discharge that you were being discriminated against because of your age?

A Yes, sir.

Felty chose to continue working at Graves-Humphreys under the incentive plan until his formal termination, although due to a work-related injury, his last day of actual work was February 28, 1983. At some time during February, he consulted an attorney and expressed a suspicion that his termination was based on his age. His attorney advised him that there was insufficient information for a charge of age discrimination. At trial, Felty maintained that because of the Yates threat of immediate dismissal he did not discuss the termination process with other employees until after March 31, 1983.

Felty filed a claim of age discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") on June 2, 1983. On August 9, 1983, Felty filed the instant action in the district court. Graves-Humphreys moved for summary judgment on the ground that Felty had not filed a complaint with the EEOC within the statutory period of 180 days from the time of the allegedly discriminatory act. While considering Graves-Humphreys' motion, the district court also conducted an evidentiary hearing to determine whether equitable tolling should be applied to extend the limitation period.

The district court concluded that the limitation period begins to run from the date the employee is informed unequivocally of his termination, regardless of when the effects of termination are felt. After determining that Felty had been given unequivocal notice of termination on November 12, 1982, the court held that the filing period began to run from that date and that Felty's EEOC complaint filed in June, 1983, was therefore, untimely. The court also concluded that equitable tolling was inappropriate because the actions of Graves-Humphreys did not conceal from Felty the information necessary to file an EEOC complaint at the time he was notified of his termination. The court, therefore, granted summary judgment in favor of the employer. Felty appeals.

II.

On appeal, Felty initially disputes the district court's conclusion that he was aware of Graves-Humphreys' allegedly discriminatory activity on November 12, 1982. He asserts that he did not know until after his termination that Graves-Humphreys was engaged in a discriminatory practice of dismissing its older employees. Felty contends that his lack of full knowledge is relevant both to the commencement of the limitation period and to the issue of equitable tolling. Alternatively, he contends that his November 12, 1982, termination notice was not unequivocal and could not trigger the limitation period.

We agree with the court below that the limitation period began to run on November 12, 1982. We further agree that Felty's knowledge of Graves-Humphreys' actions precludes the operation of equitable tolling. We conclude, however, that the court failed to recognize that limitation periods are subject to equitable modification on grounds other than the concealment of information.

The decisions of the United States Supreme Court in Chardon v. Fernandez, 454 U.S. 6, 102 S.Ct. 28, 70 L.Ed. 266 (1981), and Delaware State College v. Ricks, 449 U.S. 250, 101 S.Ct. 498, 66 L.Ed.2d 431 (1980) as interpreted by this Court in Price v. Litton Business Systems, Inc., 694 F.2d 963 (4th Cir.1982), clearly establish that the limitation period in an ADEA action commences with the allegedly discriminatory act. 2 Felty's attempt on appeal to engraft a knowledge component on the Chardon-Ricks-Price rationale is without merit. A plaintiff's lack of knowledge of the discriminatory nature of an employment decision and the reasons for that lack of knowledge are relevant to an analysis of equitable tolling but play no part in determining the beginning of the statutory limitation period. 3

We likewise reject Felty's contention that his termination notice was not unequivocal. While the "Separation Arrangement" referred to the substantial amount of work remaining to be done and contained incentives to continue employment until the formal termination date, these statements did not modify Graves-Humphreys' clear position that "[a]s of today, November 12, 1982, notice is being given that your last work date will be March 31, 1983." Indeed, we fail to see how the termination notice could have been any more unequivocal.

For all of the above reasons, we conclude that the statutory limitation period, as the district court held, began to run on Felty's ADEA claim on November 12, 1982.

III.

A conclusion on the proper scope of the statutory limitation period does not, as the district court recognized, fully resolve the issue of whether a claim of age discrimination has been timely filed. The limitations period set forth in section 626(d) of the ADEA may be subject to equitable modification when warranted by the conduct of the employer. Such modification has two possible rationales: equitable tolling and equitable estoppel. Equitable tolling focuses on the plaintiff's excusable ignorance of the employer's discriminatory act. 4 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. See Naton v. California, 649 F.2d 691 (9th Cir.1981).

At trial and in this appeal, Felty has primarily argued the issue of his lack of knowledge. To the extent...

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