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DELAWARE STATE COLLEGE ET AL. v. RICKS

decided: December 15, 1980.

DELAWARE STATE COLLEGE ET AL
v.
RICKS



CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT.

Powell, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and White, Blackmun, and Rehnquist, JJ., joined. Stewart, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Brennan and Marshall, JJ., joined, post, p. 262. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 265.

Author: Powell

[ 449 U.S. Page 252]

 JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in this case is whether respondent, a college professor, timely complained under the civil rights laws that he had been denied academic tenure because of his national origin.

I

Columbus Ricks is a black Liberian. In 1970, Ricks joined the faculty at Delaware State College, a state institution attended predominantly by blacks. In February 1973, the Faculty Committee on Promotions and Tenure (the tenure committee) recommended that Ricks not receive a tenured position in the education department. The tenure committee, however, agreed to reconsider its decision the following year. Upon reconsideration, in February 1974, the committee adhered to its earlier recommendation. The following month, the Faculty Senate voted to support the tenure committee's negative recommendation. On March 13, 1974, the College Board of Trustees formally voted to deny tenure to Ricks.

Dissatisfied with the decision, Ricks immediately filed a grievance with the Board's Educational Policy Committee (the grievance committee), which in May 1974 held a hearing and took the matter under submission.*fn1 During the pendency of the grievance, the College administration continued to plan for Ricks' eventual termination. Like many colleges

[ 449 U.S. Page 253]

     and universities, Delaware State has a policy of not discharging immediately a junior faculty member who does not receive tenure. Rather, such a person is offered a "terminal" contract to teach one additional year. When that contract expires, the employment relationship ends. Adhering to this policy, the Trustees on June 26, 1974, told Ricks that he would be offered a 1-year "terminal" contract that would expire June 30, 1975.*fn2 Ricks signed the contract without objection

[ 449 U.S. Page 254]

     or reservation on September 4, 1974. Shortly thereafter, on September 12, 1974, the Board of Trustees notified Ricks that it had denied his grievance.

Ricks attempted to file an employment discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on April 4, 1975. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 253, as amended, however, state fair employment practices agencies have primary jurisdiction over employment discrimination complaints. See 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-5 (c). The EEOC therefore referred Ricks' charge to the appropriate Delaware agency. On April 28, 1975, the state agency waived its jurisdiction, and the EEOC accepted Ricks' complaint for filing. More than two years later, the EEOC issued a "right to sue" letter.

Ricks filed this lawsuit in the District Court on September 9, 1977.*fn3 The complaint alleged, inter alia, that the College had discriminated against him on the basis of his national origin in violation of Title VII and 42 U. S. C. § 1981.*fn4 The District Court sustained the College's motion to dismiss both claims as untimely. It concluded that the only unlawful employment

[ 449 U.S. Page 255]

     practice alleged was the College's decision to deny Ricks tenure, and that the limitations periods for both claims had commenced to run by June 26, 1974, when the President of the Board of Trustees officially notified Ricks that he would be offered a 1-year "terminal" contract. See n. 2, supra. The Title VII claim was not timely because Ricks had not filed his charge with the EEOC within 180 days after that date. Similarly, the § 1981 claim was not timely because the lawsuit had not been filed in the District Court within the applicable 3-year statute of limitations.*fn5

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed. 605 F.2d 710 (1979). It agreed with the District Court that Ricks' essential allegation was that he had been denied tenure illegally. Id., at 711. According to the Court of Appeals, however, the Title VII filing requirement, and the statute of limitations for the § 1981 claim, did not commence to run until Ricks' "terminal" contract expired on June 30, 1975. The court reasoned:

"'[A] terminated employee who is still working should not be required to consult a lawyer or file charges of discrimination against his employer as long as he is still working, even though he has been told of the employer's present intention to terminate him in the future.'" Id., at 712, quoting Bonham v. Dresser Industries, Inc., 569 F.2d 187, 192 (CA3 1977), cert. denied, 439 U.S. 821 (1978).

See Egelston v. State University College at Geneseo, 535 F.2d 752 (CA2 1976); cf. Noble v. University of Rochester, 535 F.2d 756 (CA2 1976).

The Court of Appeals believed that the initial decision to terminate an employee sometimes might be reversed. The

[ 449 U.S. Page 256]

     aggrieved employee therefore should not be expected to resort to litigation until termination actually has occurred. Prior resort to judicial or administrative remedies would be "likely to have the negative side effect of reducing that employee's effectiveness during the balance of his or her term. Working relationships will be injured, if not sundered, and the litigation process will divert attention from the proper fulfillment of job responsibilities." 605 F.2d, at 712. Finally, the Court of Appeals thought that a rule focusing on the last day of employment would provide a "bright line guide both for the courts and for the victims of discrimination." Id., at ...


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