The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently reinstated race discrimination and retaliation claims that had been dismissed by a state administrative agency and the United States District Court in Massachusetts, because they could be filed without first pursing any administrative remedies. Buntin v. City of Boston, 2015 WL 9466582 (1st Cir. 2015).
Oswald Hixon worked as a mechanic for the City of Boston in early 2011. On February 4, 2011, Hixon received a written warning for taking his personal vehicle into a city garage for repairs in violation of a city policy. Hixon protested the discipline on the grounds that white employees violated the same policy without repercussions. Hixon was then suspended from work on February 7, 2011 for a purported violation of the City's drug and alcohol policy, and on February 10, 2011, the suspension was converted to a termination.
Over two years later, Hixon filed a charge with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which the agency dismissed as untimely. Hixon passed away in 2014, but Hixon's daughter, Jeannette Buntin, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Hixon's estate on February 6, 2015.
The suit alleged claims for race discrimination and retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (Section 1981). The district court dismissed the claims on the grounds that Buntin "failed to exhaust her administrative remedies by filing a timely charge of discrimination with the MCAD before bringing suit."
The First Circuit reversed the dismissal and reinstated the claims, holding that the district court erred in applying the administrative exhaustion requirements imposed by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1961 to Section 1981 claims, because Section 1981 has no such exhaustion requirement.
The First Circuit also rejected the defendants' assertion that the claim was barred by Section 1981's four-year statute of limitations. The court held that the limitations period did not begin to run when Hixon received the written warning on February 4, 2011, (in which case the February 6, 2015 suit would have been barred). Rather, the court held the statute of limitations began to run when Hixon learned of the resulting suspension and termination the following week.
This case serves as a good reminder that employer risk assessments should be far-sighted and account for the possibility of Section 1981 race discrimination or retaliation claims surviving long after the potential for liability under Title VII has ceased.