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Fitzgerald v. Larson

August 20, 1984

FRANCIS W. FITZGERALD, APPELLANT
v.
THOMAS LARSON, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS SECRETARY OF THE PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, JOHN HARHIGH, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS DIRECTOR OF THE BUREAU OF HUMAN RESOURCES, ROBERT ROWLAND, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS DISTRICT ENGINEER, ENGINEERING DISTRICT 6-0, SAMUEL ARRIGO, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS MAINTENANCE MANAGER, MAINTENANCE DISTRICT 6-1, BUCK COUNTY, LOUIS O'BRIEN, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS DIRECTOR BUREAU OF MAINTENANCE, JOSEPH WADE, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ASSISTANT DISTRICT ENGINEER, HONORABLE RICHARD THORNBURGH, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS GOVERNOR OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania (Scranton).

Garth, Sloviter, Circuit Judges, and Fisher, District Judge*fn*

Author: Sloviter

SLOVITER, Circuit Judge

The issue for decision is which of Pennsylvania's statutes of limitations applies to plaintiff's claim that he was wrongfully discharged by his employers, Pennsylvania state officials, in violation of his First Amendment rights.

I.

Francis Fitzgerald was employed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) in a nontenured position until his dismissal on June 7, 1979. He brought this suit on May 5, 1982 against several PennDOT officials in their individual and official capacities, alleging violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, 1985, 1986 and 1988.*fn1 Fitzgerald asserts that the sole reason for his dismissal was his affiliation with the Democratic Party, and claims that his employment was thereby wrongfully terminated; he seeks reinstatement, backpay and benefits, and attorney's fees and costs.

The defendants moved to dismiss the action as barred by the applicable statute of limitations. They claimed that this was an action against government officials controlled by a six-month residuary provision set forth in 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 5522(b)(1), or, alternatively, an action for personal injury governed by the two-year period set forth in 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 5524(2). Fitzgerald, on the other hand, characterizes his claim as analogous to wrongful interference with economic relations and breach of an at-will employment contract. He maintains that since none of the specific limitations periods, including the two-year personal-injury provision, applies to his claim, it is governed by the six-year residuary statute of limitations then set forth in 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5527(6) (current version at 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5527 (Purdon Supp. 1984)).

The district court agreed with defendants. In dismissing Fitzgerald's action, the court held that his claim was "analogous to the intentional infliction of emotional distress," both because Fitzgerald had "no contractually protected property or economic right" and because "the gravamen of [his] charge is the emotional distress which burdens [his] right to exercise his political rights." The court therefore held that the action was barred by Pennsylvania's two-year statute of limitations applicable to personal injuries. Fitzgerald appeals, and we reverse.

II.

In Burnett v. Grattan, 468 U.S. 42, 82 L. Ed. 2d 36, 104 S. Ct. 2924, 52 U.S.L.W. 4916 (1984), Justice Marshall, speaking for the Court, set forth the process that the federal courts must follow in determining the rule of decision to be applied in actions brought under the Reconstruction-era Civil Rights Acts, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 et seq., when the statutes do not contain an applicable rule. He said:

In the absence of specific guidance, Congress has directed federal courts to follow a three-step process to borrow an appropriate rule. 42 U.S.C. § 1988. First, courts are to look to the laws of the United States "so far as such laws are suitable to carry [the civil and criminal civil rights statutes] into effect." Ibid. If no suitable federal rule exists, courts undertake the second step by considering application of state "common law, as modified and changed by the constitution and statutes" of the forum state. Ibid. A third step asserts the predominance of the federal interest: courts are to apply state law only if it is not "inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." Ibid.

52 U.S.L.W. at 4918 (footnote omitted). Congress has not prescribed a limitations period for actions brought under §§ 1983, 1985, and 1988. Because it is "now settled that federal courts will turn to state law for statutes of limitations in actions brought under [the Reconstruction-era Civil Rights Acts]."*fn2 id., we look to Pennsylvania's law of limitations.

The parties place before us three Pennsylvania statutes of limitations: (1) the six-month residuary provision controlling actions against government officials that do not fall within a specific provision, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5522(b)(1); (2) the two-year limitation period for actions "to recover damages for injuries to the person or for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another," 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5524(2); or (3) a general residuary statute providing for a six-year limitation for actions that do not fall within a specific provision. 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5527(6) (1978) (amended 1980 and 1982) (current version at 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5527 (Purdon Supp. 1984)).

In Knoll v. Springfield Township School District, 699 F.2d 137 (3d Cir. 1983), cert. granted, 468 U.S. 1204, 82 L. Ed. 2d 870, 104 S. Ct. 3571, 52 U.S.L.W. 3929 (1984), we held that the six-month limitation period governing actions against government officials cannot be applied to § 1983 actions because it is too short to serve the remedial purpose of the federal civil rights statutes. 699 F.2d at 142. See also Perri v. Aytch, 724 F.2d 362, 368 (3d Cir. 1983); Johnson v. Swyka, ...


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