Plaintiffs alleging stand-alone violations of either Title VII or the Americans with Disabilities Act cannot seek relief in federal court for deprivation of civil rights under Section 1983, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has held in declining to revive claims a former Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission employee brought against her former employer.
In addressing an issue of first impression for the circuit, a unanimous three-judge panel of the court ruled that plaintiffs alleging violations of the ADA and Title VII, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, cannot bring claims under Section 1983 because that would circumvent the usual administrative process for handling discrimination claims.
“Allowing pure Title VII and ADA claims under Section 1983 would thwart Congress’s carefully crafted administrative scheme by throwing open a back door to the federal courthouse, when the front door is purposefully fortified,” Judge Julio Fuentes, who wrote the panel’s opinion, said. “Moreover, while Title VII and the ADA impose liability only on employers, permitting a plaintiff to sue under Section 1983 based on violations of these same statutes would open individuals … to employment discrimination suits.”
According to Fuentes, Cheryl Williams, a black woman, claimed that she was harassed by her supervisors, Joseph Retort and Adam Stalczynski, both white males, while working at the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.
Williams, who suffers from fibromyalgia and musculoskeletal pain, alleged the commission had refused to accommodate her workstation needs after they moved offices in 2010. She also claimed she was improperly placed on a performance plan, struck by a commission attorney in 2011, and was allegedly called a “bitch” by a commission attorney in 2012. Williams also contended she was wrongly reprimanded for insubordination in 2013 following a confrontation with Stalczynski regarding her requests for leave.
Fuentes said Williams made a discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in November 2013. After receiving a right-to-sue letter, she filed a complaint with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, raising a claim against the commission for discrimination, hostile work environment and constructive discharge under Title VII. She also raised a Section 1983 claim against her supervisors based on the alleged violations of Title VII and the ADA.
The district court, however, tossed those claims, finding the claims could not be brought under Section 1983.
In evaluating that ruling, Fuentes noted that, unlike Section 1983, which allows lawsuits to be brought directly to federal court, both Title VII and the ADA involve remedial schemes. Those schemes, Fuentes said, allow the administrative agencies to investigate the claims and take remedial action if necessary. They also allow the claims to be brought to court if the remedial process fails.
“As the Supreme Court has advised, our primary inquiry is whether ‘the statutes at issue require plaintiffs to comply with particular procedures and/or to exhaust particular administrative remedies prior to filing suit,’” Fuentes said. “Title VII and the ADA do exactly that.”
Christi Wallace of Kraemer Manes & Associates represented Williams. Attorneys Thomas Donahue and Kemal Mericli represented the Human Relations Commission. A spokeswoman for the commission did not return a call for comment.