Podobnik v. U.S. Postal Service

Citation409 F.3d 584
Decision Date05 May 2005
Docket NumberNo. 04-3059.,04-3059.
PartiesPhilip J. PODOBNIK, Appellant, v. UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE; National Rural Letter Carriers Association; John E. Potter, Postmaster General of the United States, Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

Mark J. Bushnell, Pittsburgh, PA, for Appellant.

Bonnie R. Schlueter, Office of United States Attorney, Pittsburgh, PA, Mark Gisler, Peer and Gan, Washington, DC, for Appellees.

Before McKEE, VAN ANTWERPEN, and WEIS, Circuit Judges.

OPINION OF THE COURT

VAN ANTWERPEN, Circuit Judge.

Before us is an appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania granting summary judgment in favor of Appellees United States Postal Service ("USPS") and National Rural Letter Carrier Association ("NRLCA"). Before the District Court, Philip J. Podobnik ("Appellant") alleged that USPS violated both the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 621, et. seq., and the collective bargaining agreement that existed between USPS and NRLCA.1 He further alleged that NRLCA breached its duty to fairly represent him. Because we conclude that each of Appellant's claims are untimely, we affirm the Report and Recommendation adopted by the District Court.

I. FACTS

Appellant was born on August 17, 1929, and he was employed as a rural letter carrier with USPS's Monroeville, Pennsylvania division from March 25, 1969, until his retirement on March 31, 1998. For the entire length of his employment with USPS, Appellant's union representative was NRLCA.2 As he was a rural carrier Appellant was not paid for a "traditional" eight hour work day, as would a city letter carrier. Rather, his compensation was based on the number of pieces of mail he delivered, the mailboxes he served, and the mileage he traveled. Appellant was required to work as long as necessary to complete his daily rounds, which he contends required between 54 and 56 hours per week.

Sometime in 1993, the Monroeville Post Office attempted to adjust Appellant's route downward by transferring approximately 40% of his route to a younger city mail carrier. Because this was a substantial adjustment downward, Appellant's compensation would have been dramatically reduced. He contacted his NRLCA union steward, Helen Malarik, but did not file a grievance at any time. Through Malarik's efforts, Appellant was able to request that the smallest leg of his route be transferred to another rural letter carrier also represented by NRLCA. Ultimately, all parties agreed to the downward adjustment of Appellant's route, which he found to be a "great relief."

On April 22, 1997, Appellant's immediate supervisor followed him on his route and observed him commit three vehicle safety violations: (1) driving in excess of the 45 miles per hour speed limit; (2) changing lanes without using turn signals; and (3) dismounting from his vehicle without shutting off the engine. For these infractions, Appellant was put on 14-day suspension and a 60-day suspension of his driving privileges. The next day, Appellant filed a USPS-NRLCA "Joint Step 1 Grievance Form" disputing these charges. NRLCA intervened on Appellant's behalf, and a "Step 2 Grievance Settlement" was reached which reduced his term of suspension to time already served.3

On March 2, 1998, Appellant was again followed and again charged with three safety violations: (1) unnecessary backing up of his vehicle; (2) leaving his vehicle's engine running while it was parked and while he was inside various addresses delivering mail; and (3) leaving his vehicle unlocked and unsecured with mail in it. On March 5, 1998, Appellant went to the Pittsburgh branch of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") to file an age discrimination claim. While filing out an EEOC Intake Form, an EEOC representative told him that he would have to pursue any discrimination claim through USPS's Equal Employment Opportunities office. Appellant did not ask for clarification, but claims to have thought that he had to file his complaint directly with his USPS supervisors (which he deemed futile) instead of a USPS employment counselor. In any event, he did not complete his EEOC Intake Form, and did not pursue his claim further with USPS.

On March 10, 1998, Appellant and Malarik had a meeting with his USPS supervisors.4 At that meeting, the supervisors indicated their intent to terminate Appellant, and he was given a letter entitled "Notice of Proposed Removal," proposing to discharge him within 30 days for the vehicle safety violations that had been observed in 1997 and 1998. This notice stated that Appellant had the option, under the collective bargaining agreement, to file a grievance within 14 days. Also during the meeting, USPS offered Appellant the opportunity to retire in lieu of termination, thereby allowing him to keep his pension. On March 31, 1998, Appellant officially retired. He never filed a grievance, nor did he request that NRLCA do so.

On October 11, 2000, Appellant met with his attorney in connection with a social security matter. At that meeting, Appellant relayed the situation surrounding his 1993 route reduction and 1998 retirement. At that time he claims that, with the help of his attorney, he became aware that he had viable claims against USPS and NRLCA. He also concedes that, between his retirement and his October 11, 2000, meeting with his attorney, he undertook no independent investigation of his case and did not learn any new facts. On October 12, 2000, Appellant filed a document with the EEOC entitled "Intent to Sue Pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 633a(d)."

On January 25, 2001, Appellant filed a Complaint against USPS and NRLCA, alleging, inter alia, various state law claims against NRLCA. On March 26, 2001, NRLCA sought to dismiss Appellant's claims as preempted under federal law. On October 31, 2001, United States Magistrate Judge Ila Jeanne Sensenich granted, without prejudice, the NRLCA's Motion to Dismiss certain counts of the complaint not involving fraud or collusion. On November 16, 2001, Appellant filed a three-count Amended Complaint against USPS and NRLCA. Count I alleged that USPS discriminated against him on the basis of his age when it reduced his mail delivery route in 1993 and notified him in March 1998 that it intended to terminate his employment. Count II alleged that USPS breached its collective-bargaining agreement with the NRLCA when it sought to terminate Appellant's employment. Count III alleged that NRLCA breached its duty of fair representation. The United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania referred the case to Magistrate Judge Sensenich for consideration of all pretrial matters. Appellant, USPS and NRLCA all moved for summary judgment. By Report and Recommendation, the Magistrate Judge denied Appellant's motion for summary judgment and granted USPS and NRLCA's motion for summary judgment, finding that Appellant's claims were time-barred. By Memorandum Order, the District Court adopted the Magistrate's Report and Recommendation. This timely appeal followed.

II. JURISDICTION AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

The District Court had original jurisdiction over Appellant's Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA") claim and "hybrid" section 301 claim5 pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Our jurisdiction is grounded in 28 U.S.C. § 1291, as the District Court's grant of Appellees' motion for summary judgment was a final and appealable order.

We review the District Court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Appellees de novo. Torres v. McLaughlin, 163 F.3d 169, 170 (3d. Cir.1998). When reviewing the propriety of a grant of summary judgment, we apply the same test a district court should have applied. Olson v. General Elec. Astrospace, 101 F.3d 947, 951 (3d Cir.1996). That is, a grant of summary judgment is appropriate only where the parties have established that there is no genuine dispute of material fact and are "entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Where the defendant is the moving party, the initial burden is on the defendant to show that the plaintiff has failed to establish one or more essential elements to his case. See Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323-24, 106 S.Ct. 2548. On a motion for summary judgment, a district court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and must make all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. See Marzano v. Computer Sci. Corp., 91 F.3d 497, 501 (3d Cir.1996) (citing Armbruster v. Unisys Corp., 32 F.3d 768, 777 (3d Cir.1994)).

III. DISCUSSION

Despite the lengthy record and briefs in this case, the questions before us are relatively narrow. As to his ADEA claim against USPS, we must determine whether the accrual date was delayed by the discovery rule, or alternatively whether the limitations period was equitably tolled. As to his hybrid section 301 claim against USPS and NRLCA, we must determine whether Appellant's failure to file a grievance with regard to his 1998 termination bars his recovery. We shall take each question in turn, remembering that Title VII limitations provisions are part of a body of humanitarian legislation that must be interpreted in a humane and commonsensical manner, so as to prevent unnecessarily harsh results in particular cases. Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1387 (3d Cir.1994).

A. Appellant's ADEA Claim

Appellant first claims that his 1993 route reduction and his 1998 forced retirement constitute impermissible age discrimination. "All personnel actions affecting employees or applicants for employment who are at least 40 years of age ... in the United States Postal Service and the Postal Rate Commission ... shall be made free from any discrimination based on age." 29 U.S.C. § 633a(a) (...

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