Morris v. Government Development Bank of Puerto Rico

Decision Date06 June 1994
Docket NumberNo. 93-2389,93-2389
Citation27 F.3d 746
Parties65 Empl. Prac. Dec. P 43,248 Emilio MORRIS, a/k/a Emilio Morris-Andino, Plaintiff, Appellant, v. The GOVERNMENT DEVELOPMENT BANK OF PUERTO RICO, et al., Defendants, Appellees. . Heard
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

Juan M. Masini-Soler, with whom Ramon Rivera-Iturbe, Hato Rey, PR, was on brief, for appellant.

John F. Nevares, with whom Ilsa Y. Figueroa-Arus and Smith & Nevares, Santurce, PR, were on brief, for appellees.

Before SELYA, CYR and BOUDIN, Circuit Judges.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff-appellant Emilio Morris-Andino (Morris) appeals from an order of the district court granting summary judgment against him in a suit that he had brought under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 (1988). We affirm.

I. Background

Appellant is a financial analyst who has been employed by the Government Development Bank, an agency of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, since 1965. On June 6, 1989, appellant received a letter from Emilio Pena-Fonseca, a senior vice president of the bank, telling him that he was under investigation for alleged illegalities related to the performance of his official duties. 1 Shortly thereafter, appellant appeared at an administrative hearing and denied the charges. No other action was taken in this time frame.

On September 20, the Commonwealth preferred criminal charges against appellant, alleging that he had committed the felony of undue influence. 2 Following his arrest, appellant received a letter from Ramon Canter-Frau, president of the bank, suspending him from his post with pay "until further notice." This letter bore a date of October 9, and appellant does not deny that he received it on that day.

On October 26, appellant's prospects brightened; a commonwealth court found no probable cause and dismissed the pending criminal charges. Buoyed by this victory, appellant wrote a letter to the bank's board of directors inquiring about the status of his suspension. The chairman of the board, Ramon Garcia Santiago (Garcia), acknowledged appellant's query by letter dated November 27. Garcia informed appellant that the suspension constituted a temporary measure that would remain in effect pending the completion of an internal investigation being conducted by the bank. Garcia's letter further noted that there had not yet been any "final decision" that could be appealed to the board of directors.

On December 26, appellant received another letter from Canter-Frau. This missive notified appellant that two internal charges had been lodged against him and offered him an opportunity to defend himself in respect to these charges at an administrative hearing. The letter stated that a failure adequately to refute the charges could lead to appellant's discharge.

Just under a year later, appellant filed suit against the bank and various bank officials, including Garcia, Canter-Frau, and Pena-Fonseca. Invoking 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983, appellant claimed that the defendants had suspended him based on his race and political beliefs, thus violating his civil rights. The defendants denied the accusations and, in due season, moved for summary judgment. They contended, inter alia, that the suit, which had been commenced on December 21, 1990, was time-barred. The motion was referred to a magistrate judge who recommended granting it. The district court honored the recommendation. Morris now appeals.


Applicable Legal Principles

A. The Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate when the record reflects "no genuine issue as to any material fact and ... the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). "In this context, 'genuine' means that the evidence about the fact is such that a reasonable jury could resolve the point in favor of the nonmoving party...." United States v. One Parcel of Real Property, Etc. (Great Harbor Neck, New Shoreham, R.I.), 960 F.2d 200, 204 (1st Cir.1992). By like token, " 'material' means that the fact is one that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Id. (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986)).

Appellate review of an order granting summary judgment is plenary. See Pagano v. Frank, 983 F.2d 343, 347 (1st Cir.1993); Rivera-Muriente v. Agosto-Alicea, 959 F.2d 349, 352 (1st Cir.1992). In undertaking such review, the court of appeals must scrutinize the summary judgment record in the light most amiable to the party opposing the motion, indulging all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. See Pagano, 983 F.2d at 347; Griggs-Ryan v. Smith, 904 F.2d 112, 115 (1st Cir.1990).

Notwithstanding the liberality of this standard, the nonmovant cannot simply rest on perfervid rhetoric and unsworn allegations. When, for example, defendants invoke Rule 56 and identify a fatal flaw in a plaintiff's case, it becomes the plaintiff's burden to produce specific facts, in suitable evidentiary form, to contradict the flaw's existence and thereby establish the presence of a trialworthy issue. See Rivera-Muriente, 959 F.2d at 352. If the plaintiff fails to shoulder this burden, then the court may adjudicate the motion as a matter of law.

In an appropriate case, Rule 56 can be employed to determine the applicability of a statutory time bar to a particular set of facts. See id.; see also Jensen v. Frank, 912 F.2d 517, 520 (1st Cir.1990).

B. The Limitations Period

Local law determines the limitations period for section 1983 claims. See Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 269, 105 S.Ct. 1938, 1943, 85 L.Ed.2d 254 (1985). As a general rule, federal courts borrow the limitations period for personal injury actions and apply that period to section 1983 claims. See id. at 276, 105 S.Ct. at 1947. In Puerto Rico, the applicable limitations period is one year. See P.R.Laws Ann. tit. 31, Sec. 5298(2) (1991); see also Rivera-Muriente, 959 F.2d at 353; Rodriguez Narvaez v. Nazario, 895 F.2d 38, 42 (1st Cir.1990); Torres v. Superintendent of Police, 893 F.2d 404, 406 (1st Cir.1990).

In cases brought pursuant to section 1983, an inquiring court must consult federal law in order to fix the point in time from which the limitations period begins to accrue. See Rivera-Muriente, 959 F.2d at 353; Street v. Vose, 936 F.2d 38, 40 (1st Cir.1991), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 112 S.Ct. 948, 117 L.Ed.2d 117 (1992). Under the federal rule, accrual commences when a plaintiff knows, or has reason to know, of the discriminatory act that underpins his cause of action. See Chardon v. Fernandez, 454 U.S. 6, 8, 102 S.Ct. 28, 29, 70 L.Ed.2d 6 (1981); Delaware State Coll. v. Ricks, 449 U.S. 250, 258, 101 S.Ct. 498, 504, 66 L.Ed.2d 431 (1980); Rivera-Muriente, 959 F.2d at 353.

III. Analysis

The issue on appeal is whether the district court appropriately entered summary judgment on the ground that appellant sued beyond the one-year limitations period. Since appellant commenced his action on December 21, 1990, our inquiry reduces to whether appellant's cause of action accrued more than one year before that date. The defendants contend that the October 9 letter, which notified appellant of the suspension, sufficed to wind the limitations clock and start it ticking. Appellant contends that he was not on sufficient notice of his predicament until he received the December 26 letter, and that the clock did not begin to tick until that moment. The district court found that the defendants' clock kept better, more accurate time. We agree.

The rule in an employment discrimination case is that the limitations period begins to run when the claimant receives unambiguous and authoritative notice of the discriminatory act (which is another way of saying that the period begins to run when the employee learns of the adverse employment action). See Rivera-Muriente, 959 F.2d at 353 (holding that unequivocal notice of the adverse employment action is all that is required to trigger the limitations period) (collecting cases); see also Sheldon H. Nahmod, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Litigation Sec. 9.05 at 265 (3d ed. 1991) ("[I]t is only necessary for the plaintiff in an employment situation to be effectively notified of a discharge for the cause of action to accrue at the time of notification."). Thus, the key question to be answered here is temporal: at what juncture did appellant reliably know of the injury to which this lawsuit relates? See Rivera-Muriente, 959 F.2d at 353. In answering this question, the critical datum is the point in time at which the discriminatory act occurred. 3 See Ricks, 449 U.S. at 258, 101 S.Ct. at 504.

We think that the October 9 letter speaks for itself--and its tones are stentorian. That letter stated in plain terms that the bank had suspended appellant indefinitely. It provided ample and unequivocal notice of the adverse employment action. The terms and conditions of the suspension did not vary in any way from that moment forward. Consequently, the limitations clock began to tick when appellant received the letter.

We reject appellant's asseveration that the letter of December 26, rather than the letter of October 9, marks the beginning of the limitations period. The later letter did nothing more than provide notice to appellant of the continuance of his suspension. Hence, this letter, which signifies a particularly painful point in the process because it advises appellant, presumably for the first time, of the possibility that he might be cashiered, had no effect upon the running of the limitations period. After all, the point in time at which the consequences of the act become hardest to bear--which may or may not coincide with the occurrence of the act itself--has no relevance for purposes of framing the limitations period. See Chardon, 454 U.S. at 8, 102 S.Ct. at 8; Ricks 449 U.S. at 258, 101 S.Ct. at 504.

Appellant has another string to his bow--but it is badly frayed. This initiative rests on the...

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