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decided: December 15, 1980.



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.


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 712-713. It therefore reversed and remanded the case to the District Court for trial on the merits of Ricks' discrimination claims. We granted certiorari. 444 U.S. 1070 (1980).

For the reasons that follow, we think that the Court of Appeals erred in holding that the filing limitations periods did not commence to run until June 30, 1975. We agree instead with the District Court that both the Title VII and § 1981 claims were untimely.*fn6 Accordingly, we reverse.


Title VII requires aggrieved persons to file a complaint with the EEOC "within one hundred and eighty days after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred." 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-5 (e).*fn7 Similarly, § 1981 plaintiffs in Delaware must file suit within three years of the unfavorable employment decision. See n. 5, supra. The limitations periods, while guaranteeing the protection of the civil rights laws to those who promptly assert their rights, also protect employers from the burden of defending claims arising from employment

[ 449 U.S. Page 257]

     decisions that are long past. Johnson v. Railway Express Agency, Inc., 421 U.S. 454, 463-464 (1975); see United Air Lines, Inc. v. Evans, 431 U.S. 553, 558 (1977).

Determining the timeliness of Ricks' EEOC complaint, and this ensuing lawsuit, requires us to identify precisely the "unlawful employment practice" of which he complains. Ricks now insists that discrimination motivated the College not only in denying him tenure, but also in terminating his employment on June 30, 1975. Tr. of Oral Arg. 25, 26, 31-32. In effect, he is claiming a "continuing violation" of the civil rights laws with the result that the limitations periods did not commence to run until his 1-year "terminal" contract expired. This argument cannot be squared with the allegations of the complaint. Mere continuity of employment, without more, is insufficient to prolong the life of a cause of action for employment discrimination. United Air Lines, Inc. v. Evans, supra, at 558. If Ricks intended to complain of a discriminatory discharge, he should have identified the alleged discriminatory acts that continued until, or occurred at the time of, the actual termination of his employment. But the complaint alleges no such facts.*fn8

Indeed, the contrary is true. It appears that termination of employment at Delaware State is a delayed, but inevitable,

[ 449 U.S. Page 258]

     consequence of the denial of tenure. In order for the limitations periods to commence with the date of discharge, Ricks would have had to allege and prove that the manner in which his employment was terminated differed discriminatorily from the manner in which the College terminated other professors who also had been denied tenure. But no suggestion has been made that Ricks was treated differently from other unsuccessful tenure aspirants. Rather, in accord with the College's practice, Ricks was offered a 1-year "terminal" contract, with explicit notice that his employment would end upon its expiration.

In sum, the only alleged discrimination occurred -- and the filing limitations periods therefore commenced -- at the time the tenure decision was made and communicated to Ricks.*fn9 That is so even though one of the effects of the denial of tenure -- the eventual loss of a teaching position -- did not occur until later. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit correctly held, in a similar tenure case, that "[the] proper focus is upon the time of the discriminatory acts, not upon the time at which the consequences of the acts became most painful." Abramson v. University of Hawaii, 594 F.2d 202, 209 (1979) (emphasis added); see United Air Lines, Inc. v. Evans, 431 U.S., at 558. It is simply insufficient for Ricks to allege that his termination "gives present effect to the past illegal act and therefore perpetuates the consequences of forbidden discrimination." Id., at 557. The emphasis is not upon the effects of earlier employment decisions; rather, it "is [upon] whether any present violation exists." Id., at 558 (emphasis in original).

[ 449 U.S. Page 259]


We conclude for the foregoing reasons that the limitations periods commenced to run when the tenure decision was made and Ricks was notified. The remaining inquiry is the identification of this date.


Three dates have been advanced and argued by the parties. As indicated above, Ricks contended for June 30, 1975, the final date of his "terminal" contract, relying on a continuing-violation theory. This contention fails, as we have shown, because of the absence of any allegations of facts to support it. The Court of Appeals agreed with Ricks that the relevant date was June 30, 1975, but it did so on a different theory. It found that the only alleged discriminatory act was the denial of tenure, 605 F.2d, at 711, but nevertheless adopted the "final date of employment" rule primarily for policy reasons. Supra, at 255-256. Although this view has the virtue of simplicity,*fn10 the discussion in Part II of this opinion demonstrates its fallacy as a rule of general application. Congress has decided that time limitations periods commence with the date of the "alleged unlawful employment practice." See 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-5 (e). Where, as here, the only challenged employment practice occurs before the termination date, the limitations periods necessarily commence to run before that date.*fn11 It should not be forgotten that time-limitations provisions themselves promote important interests; "the period

[ 449 U.S. Page 260]

     allowed for instituting suit inevitably reflects a value judgment concerning the point at which the interests in favor of protecting valid claims are outweighed by the interests in prohibiting the prosecution of stale ones." Johnson v. Railway Express Agency, Inc., 421 U.S., at 463-464.*fn12 See Mohasco Corp. v. Silver, 447 U.S. 807, 820, 825 (1980).


The EEOC, in its amicus brief, contends in the alternative for a different date. It was not until September 12, 1974, that the Board notified Ricks that his grievance had been denied. The EEOC therefore asserts that, for purposes of computing limitations periods, this was the date of the unfavorable tenure decision.*fn13 Two possible lines of reasoning underlie this argument. First, it could be contended that the Trustees' initial decision was only an expression of intent that did not become final until the grievance was denied. In support of this argument, the EEOC notes that the June 26 letter explicitly held out to Ricks the possibility that he would receive tenure if the Board sustained his grievance. See n. 2, supra. Second, even if the Board's first decision

[ 449 U.S. Page 261]

     expressed its official position, it could be argued that the pendency of the grievance should toll the running of the limitations periods.

We do not find either argument to be persuasive. As to the former, we think that the Board of Trustees had made clear well before September 12 that it had formally rejected Ricks' tenure bid. The June 26 letter itself characterized that as the Board's "official position." Ibid. It is apparent, of course, that the Board in the June 26 letter indicated a willingness to change its prior decision if Ricks' grievance were found to be meritorious. But entertaining a grievance complaining of the tenure decision does not suggest that the earlier decision was in any respect tentative. The grievance procedure, by its nature, is a remedy for a prior decision, not an opportunity to influence that decision before it is made.

As to the latter argument, we already have held that the pendency of a grievance, or some other method of collateral review of an employment decision, does not toll the running of the limitations periods. Electrical Workers v. Robbins & Myers, Inc., 429 U.S. 229 (1976).*fn14 The existence of careful procedures to assure fairness in the tenure decision should not obscure the principle that limitations periods normally commence when the employer's decision is made. Cf. id., at 234-235.*fn15


The District Court rejected both the June 30, 1975, date and the September 12, 1974, date, and concluded that the limitations periods had commenced to run by June 26, 1974, when the President of the Board notified Ricks that he would be offered a "terminal" contract for the 1974-1975 school

[ 449 U.S. Page 262]

     year. We cannot say that this decision was erroneous. By June 26, the tenure committee had twice recommended that Ricks not receive tenure; the Faculty Senate had voted to support the tenure committee's recommendation; and the Board of Trustees formally had voted to deny Ricks tenure.*fn16 In light of this unbroken array of negative decisions, the District Court was justified in concluding that the College had established its official position -- and made that position apparent to Ricks -- no later than June 26, 1974.*fn17

We therefore reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals and remand to that court so that it may reinstate the District Court's order dismissing the complaint.

Reversed and remanded.


605 F.2d 710, reversed and remanded.


I agree with the Court that the unlawful employment practice alleged in the respondent's complaint was a discriminatory

[ 449 U.S. Page 263]

     denial of tenure, not a discriminatory termination of employment. See ante, at 257-259, and nn. 8, 9. Nevertheless, I believe that a fair reading of the complaint reveals a plausible allegation that the College actually denied Ricks tenure on September 12, 1974, the date on which the Board finally confirmed its decision to accept the faculty's recommendation that he not be given tenure.

Therefore, unlike the Court, I think Ricks should be allowed to prove to the District Court that the allegedly unlawful denial of tenure occurred on that date.*fn1 As noted by the Court, see ante, at 260, n. 13, if Ricks succeeds in this proof, his § 1981 claim would certainly be timely, and the timeliness of his Title VII claim would then depend on whether his filing of a complaint with the Delaware Department of Labor entitled him to file his EEOC charge within 300 days of the discriminatory act, rather than within the 180 days' limitation that the Court of Appeals and the District Court assumed to be applicable.*fn2

A brief examination of the June 26, 1974, letter to Ricks

[ 449 U.S. Page 264]

     from the Board of Trustees, quoted by the Court, ante, at 253, n. 2, provides a reasonable basis for the allegation that the College did not effectively deny Ricks tenure until September 12. The letter informed Ricks of the Board's "intent not to renew" his contract at the end of the 1974-1975 academic year. And the letter suggested that the Board was so informing Ricks at that time only to ensure technical compliance with College and American Association of University Professors requirements in case it should later decide to abide by its earlier acceptance of the faculty's recommendation that Ricks be denied tenure. The Board expressly stated in the letter that it had "no way of knowing" what the outcome of the grievance process might be, but that a decision of the Board's Educational Policy Committee favorable to Ricks would "of course . . . supersede any previous action taken by the Board."

Thus, the Board itself may have regarded its earlier actions as tentative or preliminary, pending a thorough review triggered by the respondent's request to the Committee. The Court acknowledges that this letter expresses the Board's willingness to change its earlier view on Ricks' tenure, but considers the grievance procedure under which the decision might have been changed to be a remedy for an earlier tenure decision and not a part of the overall process of making the initial tenure decision. Ricks, however, may be able to prove to the District Court that at his College the original Board response to the faculty's recommendation was not a virtually final action subject to reopening only in the most extreme cases, but a preliminary decision to advance the tenure question to the Board's grievance committee as the next conventional stage in the process.*fn3

[ 449 U.S. Page 265]

     Whether this is an accurate view of the tenure process at Delaware State College is, of course, a factual question we cannot resolve here. But Ricks lost his case in the trial court on a motion to dismiss. I think that motion was wrongly granted, and that Ricks was entitled to a hearing and a determination of this factual issue. See Abramson v. University of Hawaii, 594 F.2d 202 (CA9).

I would, therefore, vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the case to the District Court so that it can make this determination and then, if necessary, resolve whether Title VII allowed Ricks 300 days from the denial of tenure to file his charge with the Commission.

JUSTICE STEVENS, dissenting.

The custom widely followed by colleges and universities of offering a 1-year terminal contract immediately after making an adverse tenure decision is, in my judgment, analogous to the custom in many other personnel relationships of giving an employee two weeks' advance notice of discharge. My evaluation of this case can perhaps best be explained by that analogy.

Three different reference points could arguably determine when a cause of action for a discriminatory discharge accrues: (1) when the employer decides to terminate the relationship; (2) when notice of termination is given to the employee; and (3) when the discharge becomes effective. The most sensible rule would provide that the date of discharge establishes the time when a cause of action accrues and the statute of limitations begins to run. Prior to that date, the allegedly wrongful act is subject to change; more importantly, the effective discharge date is the date which can normally be identified with the least difficulty or dispute.*fn1a

[ 449 U.S. Page 266]

     I would apply the same reasoning here in identifying the date on which respondent's allegedly discriminatory discharge became actionable. See Egelston v. State University College at Geneseo, 535 F.2d 752, 755 (CA2 1976). Thus under my analysis the statute of limitations began to run on June 30, 1975, the termination date of respondent's 1-year contract. In reaching that conclusion, I do not characterize the College's discharge decision as a "continuing violation"; nor do I suggest that a teacher who is denied tenure and who remains in a school's employ for an indefinite period could file a timely complaint based on the tenure decision when he or she is ultimately discharged. Rather, I regard a case such as this one, in which a college denies tenure and offers a terminal 1-year contract as part of the adverse tenure decision, as a discharge case. The decision to deny tenure in this situation is in all respects comparable to another employer's decision to discharge an employee and, in due course, to give the employee notice of the effective date of that discharge. Both the interest in harmonious working relations during the terminal period of the employment relationship,*fn2a and the interest

[ 449 U.S. Page 267]

     in certainty that is so important in litigation of this kind,*fn3a support this result.

For these reasons, I would affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.


* Robert E. Williams, Douglas S. McDowell, and Daniel R. Levinson filed a brief for the Equal Employment Advisory Council as amicus curiae urging reversal.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed by Solicitor General McCree, Deputy Solicitor General Wallace, Edwin S. Kneedler, Leroy D. Clark, Joseph T. Eddins, and Lutz Alexander Prager for the United States et al.; and by David M. Rabban and Victor J. Stone for the American Association of University Professors.

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