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Jones v. R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company

September 16, 2002

EDITH JONES, EUNICE YOUNG, VIRGINIA CLARK, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,
v.
R.R. DONNELLEY & SONS COMPANY, A DELAWARE CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 96 C 7717--Matthew F. Kennelly, Judge.

Before Ripple, Kanne and Evans, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ripple, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED APRIL 4, 2002

Several classes of plaintiffs brought suit against their former employer, R.R. Donnelley & Sons ("Donnelley"), for race discrimination pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Before the court is a single certified question: "[W]hether in a 1996 lawsuit brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 alleging race discrimination in termination of employment, and maintenance of a racially hostile work environment, the appropriate statute of limitations is the 'catch-all' four-year period enacted by Congress in 1990 and codified at 28 U.S.C. § 1658, or the personal injury statute of limitations of the forum state?" R.248 at 2. The district court determined that § 1658 provided the applicable statute of limitations for the plaintiffs' claims. Because we find ourselves in respectful disagreement with the district court, we reverse its decision and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. BACKGROUND

A.

The plaintiffs are members of three classes of AfricanAmerican former employees of Donnelley's Chicago Manufacturing Division, many of whom were terminated or transferred from their employment on or before July 29, 1994, in connection with the closing of that facility. *fn1 Their claims against Donnelley include discriminatory transfer, discriminatory termination and racially hostile work environment. They filed their initial pleading in this case on November 25, 1996.

In its answer, Donnelley raised the statute of limitations as an affirmative defense; Donnelley claimed that the "alleged 42 U.S.C. § 1981 claims which arose more than two years prior to the filing of the complaint are barred by the applicable statute of limitations." R.2 at 16. Soon after filing its answer, Donnelley moved for summary judgment on the claims of those plaintiffs whose employment was terminated on or around July 29, 1996. *fn2 According to Donnelley, this court's decision in Smith v. City of Chicago Heights, 951 F.2d 834, 836 n.1 (7th Cir. 1992), established that Illinois' two-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims was the applicable statute of limitations for claims of race discrimination arising in Illinois and brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1981. See R.10 at 2. Because the complaint was not filed until November 1996, more than two years after the plaintiffs' last employment at Donnelley, their claims were time-barred. *fn3

In their response, the plaintiffs presented three reasons why their claims should be considered timely. First, the plaintiffs argued that the termination of their employment was part of a larger program of discrimination by Donnelley and that, consequently, "no statute of limitations should be imposed in this case." R.102 at 4. In the alternative, the plaintiffs submitted that the appropriate statute of limitations for violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 was the fouryear statute of limitations provided in 28 U.S.C. § 1658. Specifically, the plaintiffs maintained that their claims arose under amendments to § 1981 enacted through the Civil Rights Act of 1991. Their claims, therefore, arose under the 1991 Civil Rights Act, a law enacted after § 1658, and therefore were subject to § 1658's four-year statute of limitations. Finally, the plaintiffs argued that the doctrines of equitable estoppel and equitable tolling should apply to extend the statute of limitations to allow the plaintiffs to maintain their claims.

B.

The parties eventually narrowed the issue to be resolved by the district court: The appropriate statute of limitations to apply to the claims of those plaintiffs whose employment was terminated in conjunction with the closing of the Chicago facility. The district court began its analysis by looking at the language of § 1981 prior to the adoption of the 1991 Civil Rights Act:

All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, penalties, taxes, licenses, and exactions of every kind, and to no other. 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (1990).

The court then noted that in Patterson v. McLean Credit Union, 491 U.S. 164 (1989), the Supreme Court had interpreted § 1981 to protect just two rights:

the right to make contracts, which "extend[ed] only to the formation of a contract, but not to problems that may arise later from the conditions of continuing employment," and the right to enforce contracts, which "embrace[d] protection of a legal process, and of a right of access to legal process, that will address and resolve contract-law claims without regard to race." R.244 at 4 (quoting Patterson, 491 U.S. at 176-77).

Consequently, after Patterson was handed down, § 1981 had a very limited scope that did not include claims for discriminatory termination or hostile work environment.

As part of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the district court noted, Congress amended § 1981 to define " 'make and enforce contracts' to include 'the making, performance, modification, and termination of contracts, and the enjoyment of all benefits, privileges, terms, and conditions of the contractual relationship.' " Id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1981(b)). Under this language, aggrieved employees could pursue claims of discrimination based upon events that occurred during the course of their employment.

After reviewing this evolution of § 1981, the district court turned to the question of the appropriate statute of limitations for claims brought under § 1981. The court acknowledged that courts considering claims under § 1981 historically have applied the personal injury statute of limitations of the forum state. See id. However, the court believed that "this well-settled proposition was altered by Congress' enactment on December 1, 1990 of 28 U.S.C. § 1658, the federal 'catch-all' statute of limitations." Id. Section 1658 provides in relevant part: "Except as otherwise provided by law, a civil action arising under an Act of Congress enacted after the date of the enactment of this section may not be commenced later than 4 years after the cause of action accrues." 28 U.S.C. § 1658(a). *fn4 Noting that § 1658 applies to any "civil action arising under an Act of Congress enacted" after December 1, 1990, the district court took the view that "An Act of Congress enacted" was not "susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation." R.244 at 8 (internal quotation marks omitted).

"Enact" means "to make into law by authoritative act," Black's Law Dictionary 546 (7th ed. 1999); thus every Act of Congress, whether it reflects a never-before considered subject or amends a previously existing statute, is "enacted." To the extent there could ever be any doubt about whether the Civil Rights Act of 1991 was "an Act of Congress" or whether it was "enacted," the language of the law itself should set the record straight. Id. (internal citations omitted).

The court went on to note that the preamble to the Civil Rights Act of 1991 both defines it as "An Act to amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . . ." and also begins with "Be it enacted . . . ." Id. (emphasis in original and internal quotation marks omitted). The court also found it unambiguous that "arising under" meant "stemming from" or "originating in." Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The court concluded that the meaning of § 1658 was that "whenever Congress, after December 1990, passes legislation that creates a new cause of action, the catch-all statute of limitations applies to that cause of action." Id.

The court then applied its interpretation of § 1658 to the facts presented. The court stated that § 1981 claims allowed by Patterson "clearly arise under an Act of Congress that was enacted prior to § 1658's enactment date, and the catch-all statute does not apply to such claims." Id. at 8-9. However, "[c]laims that Patterson said could not be brought under the pre-1991 version of § 1981, but which can be made only by virtue of § 1981(b), just as clearly arise under the Civil Rights Act of 1991, an Act of Congress enacted after § 1658." Id. at 9. Therefore, the district court concluded that § 1658 applies to that latter class of claims.

The court acknowledged that its decision was contrary to the only court of appeals decision to address the issue, see Zubi v. AT&T Corp., 219 F.3d 220, 225 (3d Cir. 2000), as well as the majority of the district courts. Quoting the Third Circuit, the district court read Zubi as based on the rationale that Congress, in enacting the 1991 legislation, had chosen "to build upon a statutory text that has existed since 1870," and therefore "Zubi's civil action arises under an Act of Congress enacted before December 1, 1990, and is governed by New Jersey's two-year statute of limitations." R.244 at 5 (quoting Zubi, 219 F.3d at 225-26). The district court could not "imagine how this [was] possible," because "in Patterson, ...


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