Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express, Inc.

Citation417 F.2d 1122
Decision Date16 December 1969
Docket NumberNo. 26974.,26974.
PartiesRichard JOHNSON, Jr., Plaintiff-Appellant, v. GEORGIA HIGHWAY EXPRESS, INC., Defendant-Appellee.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)

Howard Moore, Jr., Peter E. Rindskopf, Atlanta, Ga., Jack Greenberg, New York City, Gabrielle K. McDonald, Houston, Tex., Robert Belton, Gabrielle A. Kirk, New York City, for plaintiff-appellant.

John W. Wilcox, Jr., Wilson, Branch & Wilcox, Alexander E. Wilson III, Charles C. Benedict, Atlanta, Ga., for appellee.

Marian Halley, Atty., Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Washington, D. C., Daniel Steiner, Gen. Counsel, Russell Specter, Asst. Gen. Counsel, amicus curiae.

Before BROWN, Chief Judge, GODBOLD, Circuit Judge, and CABOT, District Judge.

CABOT, District Judge:

This is an interlocutory appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), from an order dated June 24, 1968, of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia which denied appellant's motion to strike the appellee's demand for a jury trial and holding that appellant could not maintain this suit as a class action until he proved that he had been discharged because of race. Additionally, the order restricted the scope of the class to those persons who had been discharged because of their race. The issues to be decided, therefore, are whether or not the court erred with respect to these holdings.

Application of the rule pertaining to class actions is to be considered in the light of the particular circumstances of the case and generally, unless abuse is shown, the trial court's decision as to whether a proper class action has been brought is final. Cypress v. Newport News General and Non-Sectarian Hospital Assn., 4 Cir. 1967, 375 F.2d 648. We hold that such abuse does appear and the trial court must be reversed.

This suit is an employment discrimination action brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. The appellant Johnson was employed by the appellee Georgia Highway Express, an interstate carrier of freight, in the capacity of a "stripper" and "stacker" in the appellee's Atlanta terminal for a number of years. It was alleged that in February of 1966 the company held a meeting with numerous Negro employees for the purpose of affording them an opportunity to present grievances to the company. The appellant, acting as spokesman for the group, inquired of the company how long it would be before Negro employees would be allowed to apply for jobs not then held by members of their race. Several weeks after the meeting appellant was discharged from his job. Appellant asserts that his discharge was racially motivated. The appellee denies that appellant was a spokesman for the group and contends that the appellant was discharged because of his failure to "regularly report to work" and to "regularly report to work on time."

On or about March 31, 1966, appellant filed a charge of racial discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) complaining of certain policies and practices of the appellee all in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, supra. The Commission notified appellant that while it had found reasonable cause to believe that the practices alleged by him had been committed by the company it had been unable to secure the company's voluntary compliance.

Upon the failure of EEOC to conciliate, the appellant on February 27, 1968, filed this complaint on behalf of himself and, pursuant to Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, on behalf of all other similarly situated Negroes seeking equal employment opportunities without discrimination on the grounds of race or color. The complaint set forth various acts of discrimination and coupled the same with an assertion of a company-wide policy of discrimination and segregation on the basis of race. The appellant sought to enjoin those practices and sought back pay. The appellee denied the material allegations of the complaint and moved to dismiss on the grounds that the suit was not a proper class action within the meaning of Rule 23 and requested a jury trial on "any issues of fact that may be lawfully tried by a jury." Appellant moved to strike the demand for jury trial. The district court denied the motion to strike and held that the class relief would be limited to persons discharged because of their race and that the suit could not be maintained as a class action until appellant proved that his discharge was for racial reasons and a determination made as to appellant's status in the event he should apply for re-employment.


The first point raised by appellant involves the district court's narrowing of the class, i. e., that the appellant, a discharged Negro employee, could only represent other discharged Negro employees. This was error as it is clear from the pleadings that the scope of appellant's suit is an "across the board" attack on unequal employment practices alleged to have been committed by the appellee pursuant to its policy of racial discrimination. Thus, the following language from a decision of this court, though appearing in a school desegregation case, seems applicable here:

The peculiar rights of specific individuals were not in controversy. It the suit was directed at the system wide policy of racial discrimination. It sought obliteration of that policy of system-wide racial discrimination. In various ways this was sought through suitable declaratory orders and injunctions against any rule, regulation, custom or practice having any such consequence. Potts v. Flax, 5 Cir. 1963, 313 F.2d 284, 289.

While it is true, as the lower court points out, that there are different factual questions with regard to different employees, it is also true that the "Damoclean threat of a racially discriminatory policy hangs over the racial class and is a question of fact common to all members of the class." Hall v. Werthan Bag Corp., M.D. Tenn.1966, 251 F.Supp. 184. Moreover, this court, in Jenkins v. United Gas Corp., 5 Cir. 1968, 400 F.2d 28, a Title VII Civil Rights action, refused to narrow a class based upon reasoning that there are different facts and circumstances involved in employment decisions, jobs, and qualifications. And assuming subsequent intervention after remand, if the lower court feels that it would be too burdensome due to the inapplicability of some issues to other members of the class, resort may be made to the use of sub-classes. See Oatis v. Crown Zellerbach Corp., 5 Cir. 1968, 398 F.2d 496. While the lower court was in doubt as to which class the appellant sought to represent, from the nature of the relief and subsequent briefs, it is obvious that he seeks to represent all Negro employees of the appellee, including discharged employees, as this is the class harmed by the alleged discrimination in hiring, firing, promotion, and maintenance of facilities.

In addition to impermissibly narrowing the class, the lower court refused to allow the appellant to represent the class until he proved his own right to relief. What the court held, therefore, was that the appellant was not a proper representative of the class. Two of the prerequisites to a class action are that the claims or defenses of the representative party are typical of the claims or defenses of the class, and that the representative party will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class. Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 23 (a) (3), (a) (4).

In this case it is clear that the appellant is a member of the class, i. e., a discharged Negro employee of the appellee, and his claim of racial discrimination is typical of the claims of the class. Whether he will adequately represent the class is a question of fact to be "raised and resolved in the trial court in the usual manner, * * *." Harris v. Palm Springs Alpine Estates, Inc., 9 Cir. 1964, 329 F.2d 909, 913. Therefore, the court below, if it doubted appellant's ability to protect the interests of the class, could have had, and on remand still can have, an evidentiary hearing on the issue. In this regard the standard to be applied is not whether appellant will prevail, but is as stated by Judge Medina:

An essential concomitant of adequate representation is that the party\'s attorney be qualified, experienced, and generally able to conduct the proposed litigation. Additionally, it is necessary to eliminate so far as possible the likelihood that the litigants are involved in a collusive suit or that plaintiff has interests antagonistic to those of the remainder of the class. Eisen v. Carlisle and Jacquelin, 2 Cir. 1968, 391 F.2d 555.

The plaintiff seeks relief against "limiting the use of company maintained facilities on the basis of race or color" but does not describe the facilities or the circumstances surrounding their use. If the defendant is not sufficiently advised of the charges made so as to be able to adequately meet its trial burdens, recourse may be had to a motion for more definite statement and to the various pretrial discovery devices.

The interstate character of defendant's business may well place a heavy management burden on the court, but surely not beyond the...

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