Saint Francis College v. Al-Khazraji

Decision Date18 May 1987
Docket NumberNo. 85-2169,AL-KHAZRAJI,85-2169
Citation107 S.Ct. 2022,95 L.Ed.2d 582,481 U.S. 604
PartiesSAINT FRANCIS COLLEGE, et al., Petitioners, v. Majid Ghaidan, etc
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Respondent professor, a United States citizen born in Iraq, filed suit in Federal District Court against petitioners, his former employer and its tenure committee, alleging that, by denying him tenure nearly three years before, they had discriminated against him on the basis of his Arabian race in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The court held that the claim was not barred under the Pennsylvania 6-year statute of limitations, but granted summary judgment for petitioners upon finding that § 1981 does not reach discrimination claims based on Arabian ancestry. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit acknowledged that its recent Goodman [v. Lukens Steel Co., 777 F.2d 113 (CA 3 1985) ] case had overruled its earlier decisions by applying Pennsylvania's 2-year personal injury statute of limitations rather than the 6-year period in § 1981 cases, but ruled that respondent's claim was not time barred since Goodman should not be applied retroactively under Chevron Oil Co. v. Huson, 404 U.S. 97, 92 S.Ct. 349, 30 L.Ed.2d 296. However, the court reversed the District Court on the merits, holding that respondent had properly alleged racial discrimination in that, although Arabs are Caucasians under current racial classifications, Congress, when it passed what is now § 1981, did not limit its protections to those who today would be considered members of a race different from the defendant's. The court said that, at a minimum, § 1981 reaches discrimination directed against an individual because he or she is genetically part of an ethnically and physiognomically distinctive subgrouping of homo sapiens. Because the record was insufficient to determine whether respondent had been subjected to the sort of prejudice that § 1981 would redress, the case was remanded.

Held:

1. Respondent's claim was not time barred. When respondent filed suit, it was clearly established in the Third Circuit that a § 1981 plaintiff had six years to bring an action. The Court of Appeals correctly held that its Goodman decision should not be applied retroactively, since Chevron indicated that it is manifestly inequitable to apply statute of limitations decisions retroactively when they overrule clearly established Circuit precedent on which the complaining party was entitled to rely. Pp. 608-609.

2. A person of Arabian ancestry may be protected from racial discrimination under § 1981. The Court of Appeals properly rejected petitioners' contention that, as a Caucasian, respondent cannot allege thetype of discrimination that § 1981 forbids since that section does not encompass claims of discrimination by one Caucasian against another. That position assumes that all those who might be deemed Caucasians today were thought to be of the same race when § 1981 became law. In fact, 19th-century sources commonly described "race" in terms of particular ethnic groups, including Arabs, and do not support the claim that Arabs and other present-day "Caucasians" were then considered to be a single race. Moreover, § 1981's legislative history indicates that Congress intended to protect identifiable classes of persons who are subjected to intentional discrimination solely because of their ancestry or ethnic characteristics. However, a distinctive physiognomy is not essential to qualify for § 1981 protection. Thus, if respondent can prove that he was subjected to intentional discrimination based on the fact that he was born an Arab, rather than solely on the place or nation of his origin or his religion, he will have made out a § 1981 case. Pp. 609-613.

784 F.2d 505 (CA 3 1986), affirmed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. ----.

Nick S. Fisfis, Pittsburgh, Pa., for petitioners.

Caroline Mitchell, New York City, for respondent.

Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent, a citizen of the United States born in Iraq, was an associate professor at St. Francis College, one of the petitioners here. In January 1978, he applied for tenure; the Board of Trustees denied his request on February 23, 1978. He accepted a 1-year, nonrenewable contract and sought administrative reconsideration of the tenure decision, which was denied on February 6, 1979. He worked his last day at the college on May 26, 1979. In June 1979, he filed complaints with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. The state agency dismissed his claim and the EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter on August 6, 1980.

On October 30, 1980, respondent filed a pro se complaint in the District Court alleging a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and claiming discrimination based on national origin, religion, and/or race. Amended complaints were filed, adding claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983, 1985(3), 1986, and state law. The District Court dismissed the §§ 1986 and 1985(3) and Title VII claims as untimely but held that the §§ 1981 and 1983 claims were not barred by the Pennsylvania 6-year statute of limitations. The court at that time also ruled that because the complaint alleged denial of tenure because respondent was of the Arabian race, an action under § 1981 could be maintained. Defendants' motion for summary judgment came up before a different judge, who construed the pleadings as asserting only discrimination on the basis of national origin and religion, which § 1981 did not cover. Even if racial discrimination was deemed to have been alleged, the District Court ruled that § 1981 does not reach claims of discrimination based on Arabian ancestry.1

The Court of Appeals rejected petitioners' claim that the § 1981 claim had not been timely filed. Under the Court of Appeals' holding in Goodman v. Lukens Steel Co., 777 F.2d 113 (CA 3 1985), that the Pennsylvania 2-year statute of limitations governed § 1981 cases, respondent's suit would have been barred. The Court of Appeals, however, relying on Chevron Oil Co. v. Huson, 404 U.S. 97, 92 S.Ct. 349, 30 L.Ed.2d 296 (1971), held that Goodman should not be retroactively applied and that this suit was timely under its pre-Goodman cases which had borrowed the State's 6-year statute.

Reaching the merits, the Court of Appeals held that respondent had alleged discrimination based on race and that although under current racial classifications Arabs are Caucasians, respondent could maintain his § 1981 claim.2 Congress, when it passed what is now § 1981, had not limited its protections to those who today would be considered members of a race different from the race of the defendant. Rather, the legislative history of the section indicated that Congress intended to enhance "at the least, membership in a group that is ethnically and physiognomically distinctive." 784 F.2d 505, 517 (CA 3 1986). Section 1981, "at a minimum," reaches "discrimination directed against an individual because he or she is genetically part of an ethnically and physiognomically distinctive sub-grouping of homo sapiens." Ibid. Because respondent had not had full discovery and the record was not sufficient to determine whether he had been subjected to the sort of prejudice § 1981 would redress, respondent was to be given the opportunity to prove his case.3

We granted certiorari, 479 U.S. 812, 107 S.Ct. 62, 93 L.Ed.2d 21 (1986), limited to the statute of limitations issue and the question whether a person of Arabian ancestry was protected from racial discrimination under § 1981, and now affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

I

We agree with the Court of Appeals that respondent's claim was not time barred. Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 105 S.Ct. 1938, 85 L.Ed.2d 254 (1985), required that in selecting the applicable state statute of limitations in § 1983 cases, the lower federal courts should choose the state statute applicable to other personal injury torts. Thereafter, the Third Circuit in Goodman held that Wilson applies to § 1981 cases as well and that the Pennsylvania 2-year statute should apply. The Court of Appeals in this case, however, held that when respondent filed his suit, which was prior to Wilson v. Garcia, it was clearly established in the Third Circuit that a § 1981 plaintiff had six years to bring an action and that Goodman should not be applied retroactively to bar respondent's suit.

Insofar as what the prevailing law was in the Third Circuit, we have no reason to disagree with the Court of Appeals. Under controlling precedent in that Circuit, respondent had six years to file his suit, and it was filed well within that time. See 784 F.2d, at 512-513. We also assume but do not decide that Wilson v. Garcia controls the selection of the applicable state statute of limitations in § 1981 cases. The Court of Appeals, however, correctly held that its decision in Goodman should not be retroactively applied to bar respondent's action in this case. The usual rule is that federal cases should be decided in accordance with the law existing at the time of decision. Gulf Offshore Co. v. Mobil Oil Corp., 453 U.S. 473, 486, n. 16, 101 S.Ct. 2870, 2879, n. 16, 69 L.Ed.2d 784 (1981); Thorpe v. Durham Housing Authority, 393 U.S. 268, 281, 89 S.Ct. 518, 526, 21 L.Ed.2d 474 (1969); United States v. Schooner Peggy, 1 Cranch 103, 110, 2 L.Ed. 49 (1801). But Chevron Oil Co. v. Huson, supra, counsels against retroactive application of statute of limitations decisions in certain circumstances. There, the Court held that its decision specifying the applicable state statute of limitations should be applied only prospectively because it overruled clearly established Circuit precedent on which the complaining party was entitled to rely, because retroactive application would be...

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