With respect to the claims of respondents, former nontenured administrators in the Puerto Rico Department of Education, that their terminations of employment violated 42 U.S.C. 1983, the applicable 1-year limitations period began to run from the dates when they received letters notifying them that their appointments would terminate at specified dates in the future, rather than from the dates of actual termination. Cf. Delaware State College v. Ricks, 449 U.S. 250 .
Certiorari granted; May 8, 1981, judgment (648 F.2d 765) and June 11, 1981, judgments reversed and cases remanded.
Respondents were nontenured administrators in the Puerto Rico Department of Education during the 1976-1977 [454 U.S. 6, 7] school year. 1 On dates prior to June 18, 1977, each respondent was notified by letter that his appointment would terminate at a specified date between June 30 and August 8, 1977. On June 19, 1978, Rafael Rivera Fernandez filed a complaint alleging that the terminations violated 42 U.S.C. 1983. The District Court dismissed the suit, holding that the action had accrued on the date the employees received the letters and that the claims were therefore barred by the applicable 1-year statute of limitations, P. R. Laws Ann., Tit. 31, 5298(2) (1968). The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed on the ground that the limitations period did not begin running until respondents' appointments ended. 648 F.2d 765 (1981).
The decision below is contrary to a recent decision of this Court:Delaware State College v. Ricks, 449 U.S. 250 (1980). In that case, Ricks filed suit alleging that the denial of tenure at a state college deprived him of his rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 2000e et seq., and under 42 U.S.C. 1981. And we held that the applicable limitations periods began to run when Ricks was denied tenure, rather than on the date his employment terminated. His action was, therefore, time-barred.
The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit distinguished Ricks on the ground that Ricks had alleged that denial of tenure was the "unlawful employment practice," whereas here respondents allege that termination of their employment as administrators was the "unlawful employment practice." [454 U.S. 6, 8] We think Ricks is indistinguishable. When Ricks was denied tenure, he was given a 1-year "terminal" contract. Thus, in each case, the operative decision was made - and notice given - in advance of a designated date on which employment terminated. 2
In Ricks, we held that the proper focus is on the time of the discriminatory act, not the point at which the consequences of the act become painful. 449 U.S., at 258 . The fact of termination is not itself an illegal act. In Ricks, the alleged illegal act was racial discrimination in the tenure decision. Id., at 259. Here, respondents allege that the decision to terminate was made solely for political reasons, violative of First Amendment rights. There were no other allegations, either in Ricks or in these cases, of illegal acts subsequent to the date on which the decisions to terminate were made. As we noted in Ricks, "[m]ere continuity of employment, without more, is insufficient to prolong the life of a cause of action for employment discrimination." Id., at 257. In the cases at bar, respondents were notified, when they received their letters, that a final decision had been made to terminate their appointments. The fact that they were afforded reasonable notice cannot extend the period within which suit must be filed. We therefore grant certiorari. The judgments entered below on May 8, 1981, and June 11, 1981, are reversed, and the cases are remanded for further proceedings consistent with this decision.
[ Footnote * ] Together with Chardon, Secretary of Public Education of Puerto Rico, et al. v. Rodriguez; Chardon, Secretary of Public Education of Puerto Rico, et al. v. Santiago de Orta; Chardon, Secretary of Public Education of Puerto Rico, et al. v. Angiuta de Rios; Chardon, Secretary of Public Education of Puerto Rico, et al. v. Sanchez; Chardon, Secretary of Public Education of Puerto Rico, et al. v. Santana; Chardon, Secretary of Public Education of Puerto Rico, et al. v. Perez-Ramirez; Chardon, Secretary of Public Education of Puerto Rico, et al. v. Roman de Molina; Chardon, Secretary of Public Education of Puerto Rico, et al. v. Collazo; Chardon, Secretary of Public Education of Puerto Rico, et al. v. Garcia; Chardon, Secretary of Public Education of Puerto Rico, et al. v. Lopez de Ferra; Chardon, Secretary of Public Education of Puerto Rico, et al. v. Beltran; Chardon, Secretary of Public Education of Puerto Rico, et al. v. Cacho de Freytes; and Chardon, Secretary of Public Education of Puerto Rico, et al. v. Navarro, also on petition for certiorari to the same court (see this Court's Rule 19.4).
[ Footnote 2 ] Delaware State College had a policy of giving a final 1-year contract to teachers who were denied tenure. Only when that contract expired, did the "employment relationship en[d]." 449 U.S., at 253 . Apparently, the practice of the Puerto Rico Department of Education was similar in principle. Following a decision to terminate, the actual ending of employment was deferred to a designated date. Advance notice of termination is a customary and reasonable employment practice which affords the employee an opportunity to find another job. [454 U.S. 6, 9]
JUSTICE BRENNAN, with whom JUSTICE MARSHALL joins, dissenting.
While I agree with the analysis of Judge Campbell for the Court of Appeals, and therefore join in the dissenting opinion of JUSTICE STEVENS, I believe this per curiam disposition is particularly ill-conceived.
It is one thing to hold, as was held in Delaware State College v. Ricks, 449 U.S. 250 (1980), that for the purpose of computing the limitations period, a cause of action for denial of a benefit such as tenure, and consequent damage, accrues when the plaintiff learns that he has been denied that benefit; it is quite another to hold, as the Court does here, that a cause of action for damages resulting from an unconstitutional termination of employment accrues when the plaintiff learns that he will be terminated. To my knowledge, such a rule has no analogue in customary principles of limitations law. See 4 A. Corbin, Contracts 989 (1951) ("The plaintiff should not be penalized for leaving to the defendant an opportunity to retract his wrongful repudiation; and he would be so penalized if the statutory period of limitation is held to begin to run against him immediately").
The thrust of the Court's decision is to require a potential civil rights plaintiff to measure the time for filing his claim from the moment some form of injunctive relief first becomes available. The effect of this ruling will be to increase the number of unripe and anticipatory lawsuits in the federal courts - lawsuits that should not be filed until some concrete harm has been suffered, and until the parties, and the forces of time, have had maximum opportunity to resolve the controversy.
Because this case is plainly distinguishable from Ricks, and the decision potentially far-reaching in its impact, the issue should be decided only upon plenary review. The Court's summary reversal is therefore particularly inappropriate, and I respectfully dissent. [454 U.S. 6, 10]
JUSTICE STEVENS, with whom JUSTICE BRENNAN and JUSTICE MARSHALL join, dissenting.
After noting that most judges who have confronted the issue have reached a conclusion at odds with the Court's holding today, Judge Campbell, writing for the Court of Appeals, cogently explained why the decision in Delaware State College v. Ricks, 449 U.S. 250 , is not dispositive and should not be followed in this case: