A federal judge in Scranton has applied equitable tolling to a case brought by a 62-year-old black pastor alleging that the prison in Lackawanna County fired him because of his race and age.
The suit filed by Ricardo C. Jackson against the Northeastern Pennsylvania county that runs the prison survived a motion to dismiss this week.
"Equitable tolling is appropriate in this case as the defendant is alleged to have misled the plaintiff with regard to the reason for his termination and then led him to believe that he would be able to continue to work with the defendant in some capacity," said U.S. District Judge James M. Munley of the Middle District of Pennsylvania in his opinion in Jackson v. County of Lackawanna.
The county had argued that Jackson hadn't exhausted his administrative remedies within the statutory timeframe, so his suit should be time-barred.
Jackson was first fired by the prison, where he had worked as a pastoral counselor since 2001, in November 2009, when his position was dissolved, according to the opinion. However, he and the prison were negotiating a different work schedule that would include evening hours until he was finally fired in April 2010.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claims are exhausted with the filing of an administrative claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The time limits for that filing with the EEOC require that it be made within 300 days of the alleged misconduct, according to the opinion.
So, the county argued that since it fired Jackson in November 2009 and he filed his claim with the EEOC in December 2010, he passed the 300-day deadline, making this suit invalid.
However, Jackson argued that his employment was reinstated after that and he wasn't finally fired until April 2010.
Munley agreed with Jackson and found that he had made his claim to the EEOC in a timely manner, thereby validating his ability to bring suit.
Beyond that, Munley held, "Even if November 2009 is used as plaintiff's termination date, plaintiff has made sufficient allegations that the statute of limitations did not start to run on that day due to equitable tolling."
He quoted precedent from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit set out in its 1994 opinion in Oshiver v. Levin, explaining that there can be "'occasions when an aggrieved person does not discover the occurrence of the alleged unlawful employment practice until some time after it occurred.'"
"Thus, 'where a defendant actively misleads the plaintiff regarding the reason for the plaintiff's dismissal, the statute of limitations will not begin to run, that is, will be tolled, until the facts which would support the plaintiff's cause of action are apparent, or should be apparent to a person with a reasonably prudent regard for his or her rights,'" he said.
In this case, Jackson alleged that the prison first told him that he would lose his job because his position was being eliminated as part of a reduction in the workforce, Munley explained in his opinion. Then, Jackson negotiated with the prison for a schedule working evening hours until April 2010. After the close of those negotiations, Jackson found out that his position hadn't been eliminated as part of a reduction in the workforce, but, instead, renamed and assigned to non-black workers. He also found out that other workers in situations similar to his who weren't black and were under 40 years old were given positions with evening hours, according to the opinion.
So, Jackson argued that the statute of limitations shouldn't start tolling until April 2010, when he discovered the real reason that he had been fired months earlier, according to the opinion.
Munley agreed and held that equitable tolling would be appropriate in this case.
In distinguishing the 1980 U.S. Supreme Court case on which the county had primarily relied for its argument that equitable tolling shouldn't apply, Delaware State College v. Ricks, from this case, Munley said, "The plaintiff in the instant case alleges that not only was he terminated in November, but also that the employer misled him about the reasons for that termination and then engaged in negotiations with him through April when defendant 'officially terminated' him.
"It can be inferred from the complaint that the defendant engaged in these negotiations to cover up their discriminatory animus. Accordingly, this is not a case like Ricks, where the employer engaged in discrimination and then allowed the plaintiff to work for an additional year," Munley said.
John Krawczyk of Koller Law in Philadelphia, who represented Jackson with David Koller, of the same firm, applauded Munley's extension of filing time.
"The judge made the right decision," he said.
John Morgenstern of Deasey, Mahoney, Valentini & North in Philadelphia, who represented Lackawanna County, couldn't be reached for comment.
(Copies of the 11-page opinion in Jackson v. County of Lackawanna, PICS No. 13-1372, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •