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MCKENZIE v. AMTRAK M OF E

June 29, 1990

MILDRED MCKENZIE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
AMTRAK M OF E, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Leval, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

This is an action for employment discrimination. Mildred McKenzie, pro se, was formerly employed as a coach cleaner for defendant Amtrak. She alleges that, as a result of her race and national origin, she was wrongfully denied the opportunity to work on holidays in April and July 1984, despite a "bumping rights" policy which allegedly permits employees to substitute for others with less seniority and even though the holidays fell on her regular working days. Plaintiff asserts claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. § 1981.*fn1

Defendant moves to dismiss the action pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(j), on the grounds that service of process was not effected within 120 days of the filing of the complaint. Defendant also contends that plaintiff's Title VII claims are barred by her failure to institute this action within 90 days of receiving a Notice of Right to Sue from the EEOC, and that plaintiff's § 1981 claim is barred by Patterson v. McLean Credit Union, 491 U.S. 164, 109 S.Ct. 2363, 105 L.Ed.2d 132 (1989).

Discussion

A. Rule 4(j)

The history of service of process in this case is fairly tangled. Plaintiff filed her complaint on March 3, 1986, and was granted permission to proceed in forma pauperis ("IFP"). On March 19, 1986, the U.S. Marshals mailed a copy of the summons and complaint to the defendants. According to court records, no response was ever received to the mail service.

Defendant avers that on or about March 25, 1986, Amtrak received a copy of the summons and "what appeared to be a complaint," together with a Notice and Acknowledgment form requesting return of service by mail. See Declaration of Sally Garr, at 1. Although the summons was legible, defendant alleges the complaint was far too faint to read, particularly plaintiff's substantive allegations. Id.; Ex. A. Defendant's counsel attempted to obtain a readable copy of the complaint from the Clerk of the Court, but the complaint was not in the court file on the day the file was requested. Id. at 2. Defendant's counsel then advised plaintiff by letter, dated April 16, 1986, that she was "unable either to acknowledge receipt of or to respond to your Complaint because the copy I received is totally unreadable." She advised plaintiff that Amtrak would respond to the complaint if plaintiff sent a readable copy to them. Id. at Ex. B. Defendant did not send a copy of this letter to the court, the U.S. Marshals, or the Pro Se Office, despite defendant's apparent awareness that plaintiff was proceeding pro se. Id. at 2. Plaintiff did not respond to defendant's letter. Id.

In early June, 1989, the court discovered through review of files that defendant had never acknowledged receipt of service. On June 7, 1989, I ordered the U.S. Marshals to serve a new copy of the summons and complaint on defendant. The second copy was mailed on June 12, 1989, and apparently received by defendant on or about June 16. Garr Affidavit at 2. Defendant signed the Notice and Acknowledgment of Receipt form on July 2, 1989.

Defendant now moves to dismiss the action on the grounds that plaintiff failed to serve a legible copy of the complaint on defendant within 120 days after filing her complaint with the court. Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(j).*fn2

The argument that service should not be deemed to be effective unless a legible copy of both the summons and the complaint are received by the defendant is, ordinarily, a strong one. Cf., Village of Wellsville v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 608 F. Supp. 497 (W.D.N.Y. 1985) (summons served without complaint is jurisdictionally defective); Parker v. Mack, 61 N.Y.2d 114, 472 N.Y.S.2d 882, 460 N.E.2d 1316 (Ct.App. 1984) (same). In this case, however, there is little justification for invoking this principle to bar plaintiff's action. The defect in service (that the photocopy of the complaint provided was too faint) was not attributable to the plaintiff, but to court personnel, who are responsible for making copies of the initial pleadings for IFP litigants.*fn3 Moreover, defendant was less than vigorous in notifying the proper officials about the defect, in order that it might be corrected. Defendant wrote a letter to the plaintiff advising her of the defect, but notified neither the U.S. Marshals nor the court of the problem, despite knowledge that the plaintiff was proceeding pro se. Defendant's counsel also apparently once attempted to find the original complaint in the court files, but upon discovering that the complaint was temporarily missing from the file, defendant did not contact chambers nor try again to locate the complaint.

This is not a case where the defect in service was such as to deprive the defendant of notice of the action being brought against it. Defendant avers that the summons was legible, and that it indicated that the plaintiff was proceeding pro se. The complaint was largely illegible as to its substance, but it was apparently accompanied by a perfectly legible copy of plaintiff's typewritten EEOC charge that furnished the same substantive allegations.*fn4 Under these circumstances, the notice-giving function of Rule 4(j) was essentially satisfied, and plaintiff is thus excused from her technical failure to comply with the 120-day provision.*fn5

Defendant argues that it would be severely prejudiced by being forced to litigate this action now, four years after the filing of the action and roughly six years after the events alleged in the complaint. It argues that documents and witnesses concerning the events of 1984 will be difficult to locate. Defendant also advises that the EEOC destroyed its files on this action on August 11, 1988, as part of a routine housecleaning of apparently dormant cases. Declaration of Kathleen Raynsford, at 2.

Defendant is undoubtedly correct that the passage of time will have made this action far more difficult to litigate. However, that is not a sufficient justification for dismissing the ...


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