Jones v. Alcoa

Decision Date21 July 2003
Docket NumberNo. 02-50097.,02-50097.
Citation339 F.3d 359
PartiesIsaiah Russell JONES; Robert Sparks, Jr.; Herman Parks, Jr., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. ALCOA, INC., Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Steven Gregory White (argued), McGregor & White, Waco, TX, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Christopher A. Knepp (argued), Vinson & Elkins, Austin, TX, for Defendant-Appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas.

Before GARWOOD, JONES and STEWART, Circuit Judges.

GARWOOD, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiffs Isaiah Russell Jones (Jones), Robert Sparks Jr. (Sparks), and Herman Parks Jr. (Parks) filed this lawsuit October 4, 2002, against defendant Alcoa, Inc. (Alcoa), a Pennsylvania corporation, alleging that Alcoa discriminated against them on the basis of race, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, by assigning them to work in areas of Alcoa's Milam County, Texas, plant where they were exposed to dangerous amounts of asbestos dust. The district court granted Alcoa's Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, finding that the plaintiffs' claims were time barred. We agree with the district court, and for the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

I. Background

The plaintiffs, all African-Americans and citizens of Texas, began working at Alcoa's Rockdale plant in Milam County, Texas, between 1953 and 1970. According to the plaintiffs, beginning in the early 1950s and continuing until 1970,1 Alcoa intentionally discriminated against them and other African-American employees by assigning them to work exclusively in the potlining department, the rod room, and the carbon plant, areas of Alcoa's Rockdale plant where employees were regularly exposed to large quantities of asbestos dust. In addition, the plaintiffs alleged that Alcoa engaged in other racially discriminatory acts, including denying them access to dining and restroom facilities reserved for white employees, denying them transfers out of the three above-mentioned departments of the plant, and refusing to promote them to higher-paying or supervisory positions.

Recently, all three of the plaintiffs have begun to develop lung disorders, disorders that they attribute to exposure to asbestos dust while assigned to the rod room, carbon plant, and potlining department at the Rockdale plant. The plaintiffs' suit was filed in state court in Milam County, Texas, to recover for their injuries, and Alcoa removed the suit to the district court below on the basis of diversity and federal question jurisdiction.2 Thereupon, Alcoa moved to dismiss the plaintiffs' complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that the plaintiffs' section 1981 claim was barred by the two-year statute of limitations provided under Texas law for personal injury actions. See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM.CODE ANN. § 16.003 (Vernon 2002). The district court, applying the discovery rule and concluding that the plaintiffs' cause of action did not arise until they became aware of their lung disorders, initially disagreed and denied the defendant's motion. Upon reconsideration, however, the district court found that the plaintiffs' claim was governed by the Supreme Court's decision in Delaware State College v. Ricks, 449 U.S. 250, 101 S.Ct. 498, 66 L.Ed.2d 431 (1980), that the discovery rule, therefore, did not operate to toll the statute of limitations, and that the plaintiffs' section 1981 claim was, in fact, time-barred. The court granted the defendant's motion to dismiss and the plaintiffs now appeal.


We review de novo a district court's grant of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, see Copeland v. Wasserstein, Perella & Co., Inc., 278 F.3d 472, 478 (5th Cir.2002), taking the actual allegations of the complaint as true, and resolving "any ambiguities or doubts regarding the sufficiency of the claim in favor of the plaintiff." Fernandez-Montes v. Allied Pilots Ass'n, 987 F.2d 278, 284 (1993). However, "conclusory allegations or legal conclusions masquerading as factual conclusions will not suffice to prevent a motion to dismiss." Id. See also Taylor v. Books A Million, 296 F.3d 376, 378 (5th Cir.2002).

As a threshold matter, we note that the discriminatory acts complained of long antedate the 1991 amendments to section 1981. It is therefore highly doubtful that the plaintiffs even present a claim cognizable under the then extant version of section 1981. The plaintiffs' allegations appear to challenge discriminatory terms and conditions of their employment with Alcoa. Under Patterson v. McLean Credit Union, 491 U.S. 164, 109 S.Ct. 2363, 105 L.Ed.2d 132 (1989), however, the pre-November 1991 version of section 1981 relevant to the plaintiffs' complaint "covers only conduct at the initial formation of the contract and conduct which impairs the right to enforce contract obligations through legal process," not conduct that occurs after contract formation and that affects only the benefits, privileges, terms, and conditions of employment. See Felton v. Polles, 315 F.3d 470, 483 (5th Cir.2002). Although section 1981 has since been amended to "`legislatively reverse[]' Patterson," we have repeatedly held that that "amendment `is not to be given retroactive effect.'" Id. at 484 (quoting Nat'l Ass'n of Gov't Employees v. City Public Service Bd. of San Antonio, Tex., 40 F.3d 698, 713 (5th Cir.1994)).3

The plaintiffs do allege in their complaint that their assignment to the pot lining department, the carbon plant, and the rod room was a term required in the formation of their contract with Alcoa, and therefore actionable under section 1981. And, it is true that this court, for purposes of a motion to dismiss, will generally accept the "pleader's description of what happened to him along with any conclusions that can reasonably be drawn therefrom." 5A CHARLES ALAN WRIGHT & ARTHUR R. MILLER, FEDERAL PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE § 1357 (2d ed.1990). The plaintiffs' allegation, however, is devoid of detail, let alone any factual basis to support the conclusion that assignment to the three areas in question was, in fact, a term implied in the plaintiffs' initial employment contract and not a subsequent term or condition of employment at the Rockdale plant. Even for purposes of a motion to dismiss however we need not accept such conclusory statements,4 particularly where they concern the legal effect of an allegation5 or involve a question of law normally reserved for the court, such as the interpretation of an implied term in an employment contract.6 Moreover, the plaintiffs' efforts, discussed below, to define their injury as the discriminatory exposure to asbestos and the denial of promotions out of certain departments tends to undermine the claim that the challenged discrimination occurred only in connection with the formation of their employment contracts as required by Patterson. There is a substantial question, therefore, whether, even apart from the limitations issue, the plaintiffs allege a claim cognizable under section 1981.7 See, e.g., Felton, 315 F.3d at 484-485 (holding that a claim of racial harassment, based on conduct occurring prior to the 21 November 1991 amendments, is not actionable under section 1981). Nevertheless, because we hold that the plaintiffs' claim is time-barred, we need not resolve whether Alcoa's discriminatory assignment of the plaintiffs to the areas of the plant in question was a term implicit in the formation of their contracts and therefore actionable under section 1981, or whether that discriminatory assignment and subsequent asbestos exposure was merely a condition of employment not actionable under the pre-1991 version of section 1981.


Assuming, arguendo, that the plaintiffs have alleged a claim cognizable under section 1981, our review focuses on the district court's conclusion that the plaintiffs' claim falls outside the relevant limitations period.

Federal civil rights actions brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, which lacks an express statute of limitations, are governed by the most closely analogous limitations period provided under state law. Johnson v. Railway Express Agency, Inc., 421 U.S. 454, 95 S.Ct. 1716, 1721, 44 L.Ed.2d 295 (1975); White v. United Parcel Service, 692 F.2d 1, 2 (5th Cir.1982). Thus, where a section 1981 claim is brought in Texas, the two-year statute of limitations for personal injury actions in Texas controls. See Byers v. Dallas Morning News, Inc., 209 F.3d 419, 424 (5th Cir.2000); Price v. Digital Equip. Corp., 846 F.2d 1026, 1028 (5th Cir.1988).

The parties agree that a section 1981 claim must be brought not later than two years after the cause of action accrues. Their dispute, rather, concerns the date on which the plaintiffs' claim against Alcoa accrued. The determination of that date is, in turn, a question of federal law. See Perez v. Laredo Junior College, 706 F.2d 731, 733 (5th Cir.1983) ("Although state law governs the substantive limitation period, federal law determines when a civil rights action accrues and, therefore, when the statute of limitations begins to run."). Thus, we have held that "[t]he limitations period for [section] 1981 ... employment discrimination cases commences when the plaintiff knows or reasonably should know that the [challenged] discriminatory act has occurred." McWilliams v. Escambia County Sch. Bd., 658 F.2d 326, 330 (5th Cir.1981).

Determining the crucial issue of when the plaintiffs knew, or reasonably should have known that Alcoa was engaged in impermissible racial discrimination so as to give rise to a cause of action under section 1981, requires this court first to "identify precisely" the exact "unlawful employment practice of which [the plaintiffs] complain[]." See Delaware State College, 449 U.S. 250, 101 S.Ct. 498, 503, 66 L.Ed.2d 431 (1980); Perez, 706 F.2d at 733. Two competing definitions of the relevant discriminatory act, or unlawful employment practice, have been...

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