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Howard v. Pritzker

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

January 6, 2015

JANET HOWARD, APPELLEE JOYCE MEGGINSON, APPELLANT
v.
PENNY SUE PRITZKER, SECRETARY, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE, APPELLEE

Argued: October 10, 2014.

Page 431

Appeals from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. (No. 1:05-cv-01968).

Elizabeth C. Bullock, appointed by the court, argued the cause as amicus curiae in support of appellant. On the briefs were David W. DeBruin, Matthew S. Hellman, and Matthew S. McKenzie.

Brian P. Hudak, Assistant U.S. Attorney, argued the cause for appellee. With him on the brief were Ronald C. Machen Jr., U.S. Attorney, and R. Craig Lawrence, Assistant U.S. Attorney.

Before: ROGERS and BROWN, Circuit Judges, and EDWARDS, Senior Circuit Judge. OPINION filed by Circuit Judge ROGERS.

OPINION

Page 432

Rogers, Circuit Judge:

The principal question in this appeal is whether the six-year statute of limitations for suits against the United States, 28 U.S.C. § 2401(a), applies to claims filed pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § § 2000e et seq., as amended to apply to federal employees, see id. § 2000e-16. We hold that it does not. In Title VII, Congress enacted " an exclusive, pre-emptive administrative and judicial scheme for the redress of federal employment discrimination." Brown v. Gen. Servs. Admin., 425 U.S. 820, 829, 96 S.Ct. 1961, 48 L.Ed.2d 402 (1976). Concluding that administrative resolution was preferable, Congress imposed an exhaustion requirement without setting a time limit for administrative resolution of an employee's discrimination complaint. Congress also provided that an employee " may file a civil action" for a de novo court proceeding within ninety days of receiving notice of final administrative action, or anytime after 180 days have elapsed from the filing of an initial charge. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c).

In a novel attempt to reconfigure Congress's statutory scheme more than forty years after its enactment, the Commerce Department would impose 28 U.S.C. § 2401(a)'s six-year statute of limitations, regardless of the status of the administrative proceedings. Applying that time limit to truncate Title VII's more lenient limitations period " irreconcilably conflict[s]" with Congress's comprehensive scheme. Adirondack Med. Ctr v. Sebelius, 740 F.3d 692, 698, 408 U.S.App.D.C. 161 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also RadLAX Gateway

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Hotel, LLC v. Amalgamated Bank, 132 S.Ct. 2065, 2071, 182 L.Ed.2d 967 (2012). Federal employees who, as here, have pursued administrative relief and, six years after their claim first accrued, had an administrative class action provisionally certified and remanded for further consideration would either have to abandon that process or surrender the right to file suit following final administrative action. That election is not part of Congress's scheme and incorporating it would strike a different balance of interests than was chosen by Congress. Accordingly, because " [t]he judicial role is to enforce th[e] congressionally determined balance," Milner v. Dep't of Navy, 562 U.S. 562,, 131 S.Ct. 1259, 1265 n.5, 179 L.Ed.2d 268 (2011), we hold that 28 U.S.C. § 2401(a) does not apply to Title VII civil actions brought by federal employees, and we reverse the dismissal of appellants' complaint and remand the case to the district court.

I.

Congress enacted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § § 2000e et seq.," to assure equality of employment opportunities by eliminating those practices and devices that discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co., 415 U.S. 36, 44, 94 S.Ct. 1011, 39 L.Ed.2d 147 (1974). Recognizing the need for " a comprehensive solution," Johnson v. Ry. Exp. Agency, Inc., 421 U.S. 454, 459, 95 S.Ct. 1716, 44 L.Ed.2d 295 (1975), to address " racially stratified job environments" that " disadvantage . . . minority citizens," McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 800, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973), Congress adopted a scheme in which the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (" EEOC" ) would be able " to settle disputes through conference, conciliation, and persuasion before the aggrieved party was permitted to file a lawsuit." Alexander, 415 U.S. at 44. Initially applying to private employment, Title VII was amended in 1972 to apply to federal government employees (with exceptions not relevant here). See Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, Pub. L. No. 92-261, § 11, 86 Stat. 103, 111-13 (codified at 42 U.S.C. § § 2000e-16). Congress left the details of the administrative process to the Civil Service Commission, requiring that each " department, agency, or unit shall comply with such rules, regulations, orders, and instructions" issued by it. Id. § 2000e-16(b). In 1978, the Commission's functions were transferred to the EEOC, effective January 1979. See Presidential Reorganization Plan No. 1 of 1978, 43 Fed. Reg. 19,807, 92 Stat. 3781. Four years after Congress amended Title VII to protect federal employees, the Supreme Court held in the seminal case of Brown v. General Services Administration, 425 U.S. at 829, that Congress intended Title VII to be the " exclusive and pre-emptive" means for federal employees to seek redress for unlawful employment discrimination.

In Title VII, as amended, Congress established two time limits for filing a civil action in federal court:

Within 90 days of receipt of notice of final action taken by a department, agency, or unit referred to in subsection (a) of this section [ i.e., most executive agencies, including the armed forces, and certain non-executive offices], or by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission upon an appeal from a decision or order of such department, agency, or unit on a complaint of discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, . . . or after one hundred and eighty days from the filing of the initial charge . . . an employee . . . if

Page 434

aggrieved by the final disposition of his complaint, or by the failure to take final action on his complaint, may file a civil action as provided in [42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)-(k)], in which civil action the head of the department, agency, or unit, as appropriate, shall be the defendant.

42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c) (emphasis added).

Janet Howard, who worked at the Department for twenty-five years, from 1983 to 2008, and Joyce Megginson, who began working there in 1971 and was still an employee as of 2014, appeal the dismissal of their complaint on the ground that the district court erred in failing to adhere to Title VII's time limits. In February 1995, Howard and two other employees filed an administrative class complaint alleging " Racial Discrimination against African Americans in the Department of Commerce," as evidenced by " [l]ow performance rating, continued denial of promotion and awards, disparate treatment in job assignment and environment, [and] disparate treatment in recognition and training." Adm. Compl. ¶ 1. They sought equitable and monetary relief. As EEOC regulations required, they filed the complaint with the Department, see 29 C.F.R. § 1614.106, which, in turn, referred the complaint to the EEOC for adjudication, see id. § 1614.109. Over the next five years, Howard and others defended against attempts to dismiss the complaint, ultimately succeeding in the summer of 2000 upon obtaining a favorable EEOC ruling that called for further administrative consideration. The path to this interim result was not straightforward and involved significant administrative delays.

In June 1995, an administrative law judge (" ALJ" ) in the EEOC Washington Field Office recommended dismissal of the class discrimination complaint for failure to meet the class certification prerequisites of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a), which by EEOC regulation apply to administrative proceedings, see 29 C.F.R. § 1614.204(a)(2). The Department accepted the recommendation in August 1995; Howard (for the putative class) appealed to the EEOC Office of Federal Operations, see id. § 1614.403. Two years later that Office ruled that adequacy of representation was no longer a stumbling block because the putative class had obtained counsel and that the ALJ had failed to consider whether the class complaint " meets the standards for commonality and typicality under the across-the-board theory." The matter was remanded with instructions to the Department to forward the case to an ALJ for reconsideration. See Howard v. Daley, EEOC Doc. No. 01956455, 1997 WL 314807 (June 4, 1997).

Almost two years following the remand, the ALJ found in March 1999 that Howard could not adequately represent the interests of the putative class and remanded for the Department to identify another potential class agent. The Department accepted the recommendation; Howard appealed. Sixteen months later, in July 2000, the EEOC Office of Federal Operations ruled that the ALJ erred in disqualifying Howard as class agent and, upon review of the criteria for class certification, provisionally certified a class and remanded the matter to the Washington Field Office. See Howard v. Daley, EEOC Doc. No. 01994518, 2000 WL 1090557 (July 20, 2000).

More than two years later, in December 2002, the Department moved to redefine the size of the class. Howard opposed the motion, and the Department filed a reply. Eight months later, in August 2003, the ALJ summarily granted the motion. Howard moved for reconsideration. When approximately eighteen months had passed without a decision, despite having inquired and received assurances that a decision

Page 435

would be rendered within months, class counsel requested by letter of September 27, 2005, in view of the decade that had elapsed since the initial charge was filed, that the administrative class complaint be dismissed because the class intended to file suit in federal court. On September 30, 2005, the ALJ dismissed the class complaint.

Howard and Megginson, as two of thirteen class representatives, filed a civil action in federal court five days later, on October 5, 2005. The class complaint alleged that the Department " has maintained a system of racially discriminatory and subjective employment practices with respect to promotions, awards, performance ratings, career-enhancing work assignments, timely training for advancement, and job assignments." Compl. ¶ 4. It sought relief, pursuant to Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § § 2000e et seq., on behalf of the class and the class representatives, for race discrimination and retaliation through injunctive relief, including the " affirmative restructuring of [the Department's] selection and compensation ...


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