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Even if you think you have a good excuse, you can lose your rights if you sit on them too long.

Baldwin v. City of Greenboro, ___ F.3d ___ (4th Cir. May 6, 2013). In February of 2001, the City of Greensboro hired Oakley Dean Baldwin to serve as its Solid Waste Division Manager. In August of 2002, Mr. Baldwin told a supervisor, Jeryl Covington, that soon he would be called up to active duty with the U.S. Coast Guard. Mr. Baldwin alleged that Covington then began harassing him, and that, after he reported this alleged harassment, he was selected for a reduction in force, to be effective upon his report to active duty.

Mr. Baldwin was called to begin his service on January 23, 2003, and signed an agreement with Greensboro two days before his service was to start. This agreement called for Mr. Baldwin to be paid a severance in exchange for him waiving his right to any claims against the City of Greensboro.

On July 13, 2006, Mr. Baldwin filed a claim against Greensboro under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) with the Department of Labor (DOL). The DOL investigated the claim until March 1, 2007, when Mr. Baldwin requested that his case be closed. The DOL reopened Mr. Baldwin’s claim in 2008, and Mr. Baldwin again requested that it be closed in January of 2009. Mr. Baldwin then filed a complaint in federal court against the City and his supervisors in their official capacities, alleging that the City’s actions were motivated by Mr. Baldwin’s membership in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves and that the City had thus violated USERRA. Mr. Baldwin’s claims against the original defendants were dismissed, and Baldwin filed an Amended Complaint. The City filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging that the statute of limitation had run on Mr. Baldwin’s claims, and the district court granted this motion.

Mr. Baldwin appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Court first examined 28 U.S.C. § 1658(a), which provides a four year statute of limitations for all cases arising under an Act of Congress enacted after December 1, 1990 (unless otherwise provided by law). The District Court cited this statute in deciding that Mr. Baldwin’s claims were barred.

On appeal, Mr. Baldwin argued that § 1658(a) did not apply to his claims for three reasons: (1) USERRA clarified the Veteran’s Reemployment Rights Act of 1974 (VRRA) and thus did not “arise under” an act of Congress enacted after December 1, 1990; (2) USERRA claims fall into the exception to the four-year statute, under the “otherwise provided by law” provision; and (3) the Veterans’ Benefit and Improvement Act of 2008 (VBIA), which eliminated the statute of limitations on USERRA claims, should apply retroactively to bar all time limitations on his claims. Alternately, Mr. Baldwin argued that, even if § 1658(a) applies to his claims, he still filed within four years because of legal and equitable tolling.

With regard to Mr. Baldwin’s first assertion, the Court agreed with the Seventh Circuit in deciding that USERRA did not “clarify” the VRRA and instead expanded on it extensively. Notably, Mr. Baldwin’s requests for a jury trial and liquidated damages would not be possible under the VRRA.

Mr. Baldwin’s second argument also failed. USERRA itself does not state that no time limit applies. Accordingly, a USERRA claim cannot fall into § 1658(a)’s exception for cases arising under statutes that proscribe a different statute of limitations (or none at all).

Mr. Baldwin’s third argument similarly failed. The Court determined that the VBIA was not intended to be applied retroactively, that doing so would unfairly revive Mr. Baldwin’s otherwise barred claim, and that nothing in the VBIA indicated Congress’ intent that the Act should apply to claims already barred by an unambiguous statute of limitations.

Finally, the Court moved on to address whether Mr. Baldwin’s assertion that his claim was not barred because the statute of limitations had been “tolled”.  (“Tolling” is legal shorthand for the argument that says, “We should stop the clock, because otherwise the plaintiff will lose important rights through no fault of his own.”)

On this tolling argument, the Court first addressed when Mr. Baldwin’s action “accrued”—that is, when he possessed sufficient facts about the harm done to him that reasonable inquiry would reveal his cause of action. The court decided that the action accrued when Mr. Baldwin signed the release, meaning that, absent tolling, the statute of limitations would have expired on January 23, 2007.

Mr. Baldwin’s argument for tolling was based on two premises: first, that his claims should be tolled based on operation of law when he was on active duty and when the DOL was investigating his case and, second, that his claims should be equitably tolled due to delays and fraud by the city. The Court found that even if Mr. Baldwin’s claims were tolled when he was on active duty and during the DOL investigation, the statute of limitations still would have expired. The Court also found that nothing on the record would support Mr. Baldwin’s contention that the City had undermined the DOL’s investigation, thus eliminating the possibility of equitable tolling. As a result, the Court upheld the decision of the district court.

USERRA is one of the rare federal employment statutes that favors the rights of the employee over the rights of the employer. The Fourth Circuit noted in its opinion that “we do not give short shrift to the edict that veterans’ assistance laws should be ‘liberally construed’ in favor of the brave men and women who have served in our armed forces.” Even so, the Court found that there were limits to how far it could go to protect those servicemembers’ rights.

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