Section 1981 Retaliation Claim Covered By Four-Year Limitations Period, Court Rules

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Retaliation claims filed under the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (42 U.S.C. § 1981) are subject to a federal four-year statute of limitations rather than shorter state limitations periods for personal injury claims, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled Aug. 4 (Johnson v. Lucent Technologies Inc., 9th Cir., No. 09-55203, 8/4/11).

Partially reversing a federal district court ruling for Lucent Technologies Inc. and Connecticut General Life Insurance Co., the appeals panel ruled that plaintiff Robert Johnson could pursue his Section 1981 retaliation claim challenging the defendants' termination of his long-term disability benefits in 2006 even though Johnson did not sue until more than two years later.

Johnson, who is black, worked for Lucent's predecessor, AT&T Bell Laboratories, in Pennsylvania before he was terminated in 1987. Diagnosed with mental illness, he began receiving long-term disability benefits from Lucent and its insurer in 1989. The succeeding years have been punctuated by frequent litigation between the parties, with Johnson and Lucent wrangling over his continued eligibility for benefits.

In August 2008, Johnson sued Lucent and Connecticut General, its insurance administrator, in a California state court, alleging unlawful retaliation under Section 1981 and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Johnson had alleged that Lucent and Connecticut General, in retaliation for a suit Johnson had filed in 2005, had stopped paying disability benefits to Johnson as of Dec. 19, 2006. The defendants argued that Johnson had failed to provide a current disability form in 2006, including information on his treating psychiatrist, but Johnson contended the proper form actually was on file with Connecticut General.

After the defendants removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, the federal court ruled that Johnson's retaliation claim was untimely filed under California's two-year limitations period for personal injury suits. The court also dismissed Johnson's Title VII claim for failure to file a timely charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

1991 Act Amended Section 1981

But the Ninth Circuit revived Johnson's Section 1981 claim, ruling that a federal four-year limitations period covering actions “arising under an Act of Congress enacted after” Dec. 1, 1990, applies to retaliation claims.

The Ninth Circuit became the third federal appeals court to rule that Section 1981 retaliation claims are covered by the four-year federal limitations period rather than generally shorter state limitations periods for personal injury claims. The Seventh Circuit and Eleventh Circuit had previously reached the same result.

Text of the decision may be accessed at .