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GOBLA v. CRESTWOOD SCH. DIST.

September 19, 1985

ELIZABETH GOBLA, Plaintiff
v.
CRESTWOOD SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants


Nealon


The opinion of the court was delivered by: NEALON

This action was originally filed by plaintiff on June 4, 1982, in which she alleged violations of 42 U.S.C. $ Z 1983, 1985 and the Pennsylvania Equal Rights Amendment pursuant to her discharge as a school teacher from the Crestwood School District. Trial by jury began March 4, 1985 and on March 18, 1985, the jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff in the amount of $ 135,000.00. In special interrogatories, the jury found that plaintiff's exercise of her First Amendment right of free speech was a substantial or motivating factor in her discharge, and that, although she was sexually harassed, the harassment was not a substantial or motivating factor in her discharge on November 1, 1978. By Motion dated March 25, 1985, defendants filed for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict alleging, inter alia, that there was insufficient evidence to support a verdict.

 During this period, the United States Supreme Court handed down the decision of Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 105 S. Ct. 1938, 85 L. Ed. 2d 254 (1985). Because the court believed that the Wilson case was dispositive of the issue in the instant action, the parties were requested to file supplemental briefs addressing the applicability of Wilson. The briefs having been filed, *fn1" defendants' motion is now ripe for disposition. For the reasons set forth below, the motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict will be granted and the verdict entered in favor of plaintiff will be vacated.

 I. FACTS

 Because the issue presented involves the affirmative defense of the Statute of Limitations, a recitation of the factual background of the case is necessary. Plaintiff was suspended from her teaching position at Crestwood High School on March 13, 1978. After a hearing, the Board of School Directors voted to dismiss plaintiff on November 1, 1978. The stated grounds for dismissal, all related to her teaching duties, were, inter alia, insubordination, failure to submit medical certification for absence, and failure to submit lesson plans. The majority of charges related to incidents of insubordination. Plaintiff took an appeal to the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education who sustained the dismissal. Plaintiff then appealed the decision of the Secretary to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court which upheld the Secretary's decision by an opinion rendered May 27, 1980. See 51 Pa. Commw. 539, 414 A.2d 772 (1980). On June 2, 1982, plaintiff sought relief in this court alleging that she was dismissed for exercising her First Amendment right of free speech and that she had been sexually harassed up until October, 1977 while teaching at Crestwood High School. *fn2" See Affidavit of Elizabeth Gobla, Document 124 of the Record, Exhibit B at 38. Defendants responded to the complaint by filing a Motion to Dismiss arguing that plaintiff's cause of action was barred by the Pennsylvania Statute of Limitations, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5522(b)(1), and that her action was barred by the doctrines of estoppel and res judicata.

 By Memorandum and Order dated September 30, 1983, this court denied defendants' Motion to Dismiss. The court held, inter alia, that defendants' statute of limitations argument failed in light of the recent decision handed down by the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Knoll v. Springfield Township School District, 699 F.2d 137 (3d Cir. 1983). In Knoll, our Court of Appeals determined that Pennsylvania's residuary six-year statute of limitations should be applied because it would better serve the federal policy underlying federal civil rights actions than would the shorter six-month statute of limitations governing employment discrimination actions brought against government officials. Knoll, however was vacated and remanded by the Supreme Court, see 471 U.S. 288, 105 S. Ct. 2065, 85 L. Ed. 275, in light of the Court's recent decision, Wilson v. Garcia.

 II. DISCUSSION

 This court must consider the effect of the Supreme Court's decision in Wilson. In Wilson, the Court held that claims brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 are best characterized as personal injury actions and, thus, the state statute of limitations for personal injury actions must be applied uniformly to all Section 1983 actions. In Pennsylvania, the statute of limitations for personal injury actions is two years. 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5524(2).

 After Wilson v. Garcia, our Court of Appeals addressed the issue of retrospective application of Wilson in Smith v. City of Pittsburgh, 764 F.2d 188 (3d Cir. 1985). After careful consideration, our Court of Appeals determined that Wilson v. Garcia should be applied retrospectively. In Smith, the court concluded that:

 
Given the uncertainty of the Pennsylvania limitations provisions, the absence of a definitive holding of this court applying the six-year statute to a claim of termination of employment without due process, and the support in the district court opinions for concluding that the six-month or two-year Pennsylvania limitations periods might apply, there was no clear precedent on which it would have been reasonable for [plaintiff] to rely in delaying filing suit for more than two years.

 With the law clearly set forth, the court turns to plaintiff's arguments which resist a finding that her claim is time-barred. Plaintiff's first argument is that Wilson v. Garcia should not be given retrospective application. This argument is clearly foreclosed by the Third Circuit's decisions in Smith and Fitzgerald, supra.

 Plaintiff's remaining arguments require more discussion. First, it is argued that defendants did not raise the affirmative defense of the Statute of Limitations in a timely manner, *fn3" and second, that plaintiff filed her complaint within the two-year Pennsylvania personal injury statute of limitations. See 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann § 5524(2). The court will address these issues seriatim.

 Plaintiff argues that defendants have waived raising the two-year statute of limitations pursuant to 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5524 because defendants only raised the six-month statute of limitations pursuant to 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5521(b). See Document 3 and 8 of the Record. Thus, plaintiff's argument is that by raising only that a six-month statute of limitations was applicable to the ...


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