In Williams v. Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, No. 16-4383. 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 16618 (3rd Cir. Aug. 30, 2017), the Third Circuit joined all the other circuits that have visited the issue and ruled that alleged violations of Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), cannot be brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on Congress’s “comprehensive enforcement scheme” inherent to both Title VII and the ADA.
Williams was originally employed at the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (“PHRC”) in the early 1990s, and she returned to it in September 1999 as a Human Relations Representative in the Pittsburgh office where she investigated discrimination complaints, interviewed witnesses, negotiated settlements, conducted fact-finding conferences, and wrote reports and conciliation recommendations. She also served as chairperson of a union that represented PHRC investigators. She was primarily supervised by Joseph Retort, a Caucasian man, from 2010 until her resignation in January 2014 and she was also indirectly supervised by the Executive Director of the Pittsburgh office, who at the time of her resignation was Adam Stalczynski, also a Caucasian man. Williams claimed that, between 2009 and 2013, she suffered discrimination at the hands of various PHRC personnel, primarily Retort and Stalczynski, specifically alleging that: (1) she was suspended without pay for five days in 2009 after she objected to the presence of PHRC attorneys at fact-finding conferences; (2) PHRC refused to accommodate her workstation needs when they moved offices in 2010; (3) Retort improperly placed her on a performance improvement plan for a few weeks in 2010; (4) she was struck by a PHRC attorney in 2011 while attempting to leave the former executive director’s office; (5) her co-worker overheard a PHRC attorney call Williams a “bitch” in 2012; and (6) she was wrongly reprimanded for insubordination in August 2013 following a confrontation with Stalczynski regarding her requests for leave. Williams contended that each of these incidents, both individually and in their totality, were not the result of common workplace strife, but were unlawful instances of discrimination based on her status as an African-American woman.
After leaving work in August 2013, Williams submitted a Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) request seeking leave from PHRC because she had leg pain and diffuse muscle aches from fibromyalgia. She was granted FMLA leave through February 2014, but never returned to work and she resigned from PHRC several months later.
In November 2013, Williams lodged a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). She subsequently received a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC and filed a four-count amended complaint with the district court, only two of which were relevant on appeal: (1) a claim against PHRC for discrimination, hostile work environment, and constructive discharge under Title VII; and (2) a § 1983 claim against Retort and Stalczynski, individually, based on alleged violations of Title VII and the ADA.
As to the Title VII claim against PHRC, the district court determined that, under the totality of the circumstances, the incidents were not severe or persistent enough to sustain a claim for hostile work environment or constructive discharge and the appeals court summarily affirmed the district court’s ruling stating “for substantially the same reasons expressed by the District Court, we will affirm the grant of summary judgment for the Commission on Williams’s Title VII claims.”
Regarding the § 1983 claim against her former supervisors, the district court held that Title VII and ADA claims cannot be vindicated through § 1983 because doing so would frustrate Congress’s statutory scheme. The appeals court began its analysis of the district court’s ruling by stating that it is well-settled law that § 1983 does not confer any substantive rights, but merely “provides a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred.” However, it also noted that even when an independent federal right exists, Congress may still choose to foreclose a remedy under § 1983, either by either expressly “forbidding recourse to § 1983 in the statute itself” or by “creating a comprehensive enforcement scheme that is incompatible with individual enforcement under § 1983.” As such, it determined that its analysis had to start with Congressional intent, noting “the Supreme Court has advised our primary inquiry is whether the statutes at issue require plaintiffs to comply with particular procedures and/or to exhaust particular administrative remedies prior to filing suit.”
The court stated that both Title VII—which prohibits employment discrimination based on an individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin—and the ADA—which prohibits employment discrimination based on an individual’s disability—utilize the same comprehensive remedial scheme. In states with an agency authorized to grant relief for prohibited employment discrimination, like Pennsylvania, employees must resort to that state remedy and employees must also file a “charge” with the EEOC within 300 days of the alleged unlawful employment practice, or within 30 days after receiving notice that the analogous state agency has terminated proceedings, whichever is earlier. The court noted that the purpose of this exhaustion requirement is “to give the administrative agency the opportunity to investigate, mediate” and/or determine what, if any, action it will take. After the process is completed, the EEOC (or the state attorney general) may either bring suit in federal court, or, alternatively, notify the employee so that he or she may institute an employment discrimination suit within 90 days. The court stated that this extensive process was in stark contrast to § 1983, which has only a one-step “remedial scheme” that permits plaintiffs to file suits directly in federal court. It stated that unlike Title VII and the ADA, there is neither an administrative process to be exhausted nor any mechanism by which discriminatory practices may be informally resolved with an administrative agency. As such, the appeals court determined that Congress’s intent is clear; that is, allowing pure Title VII and ADA claims under § 1983 would thwart Congress’s carefully crafted administrative scheme “by throwing open a back door to the federal courthouse when the front door is purposefully fortified.” It also noted that every circuit to consider this exact question has held that, while a plaintiff may use § 1983 “as a vehicle for vindicating rights independently conferred by the Constitution,” Title VII and ADA statutory rights cannot be vindicated through § 1983. As such, the appeals court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on Williams’s § 1983 claims.