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Evans v. City of Butler

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

February 27, 2017

SUSAN E. EVANS, Plaintiff,
CITY OF BUTLER, et al ., Defendants. ECF No. 15


          Lisa Pupo Lenihan, United States Magistrate Judge

         In this case, Plaintiff, a recently-retired employee of the Defendant City of Butler (“City”), asserts that she was deprived of equal protection of the law when she was classified as a part-time employee, despite working full-time hours, and was denied credit for pension purposes as a result of that designation. She brings an equal protection claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[1] Upon consideration of Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, the Court afforded the parties the opportunity to engage in a period of limited discovery directed towards the timeliness of Plaintiff's suit, while the remainder of the Motion was held in abeyance. The parties were also given a reasonable opportunity to submit all material pertinent to the statute of limitations, and have filed such materials along with supplemental briefs. The issue is now ripe for review. For the following reasons, Defendants' Motion will be granted, and Plaintiff's Amended Complaint dismissed.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff initiated this action by Complaint, filed on March 9, 2016. Plaintiff's now-operative Amended Complaint alleges that she was designated a part-time employee of the City from the time her employment commenced in 1994, until she was designated a full-time employee in 1998. Amended Complaint, ¶¶10-12. Between 1994 and 1998, Plaintiff alleges that she worked as many or more hours as those designated as full-time employees. Id. at ¶11. At all pertinent times, Defendants maintained a pension plan, the Officers and Employees Pension Plan of the City of Butler (the “Plan”). Id. at ¶¶13-14. Under the terms of the Plan, part-time employees could not participate in the Plan, regardless of the number of hours worked per year, or years of service. Id. at ¶16. Plaintiff avers that employees who are designated part time but work full-time hours, yet are deprived of full pension benefits due to their part-time designation, are predominantly female. Id. at ¶30.

         On or about January 17, 1998, when Plaintiff became a full-time employee, she became a participant of the Plan, and began contributing five percent of her wages to the Plan. Id. at ¶20. She retired effective July 21, 2015, at the age of sixty, believing that she had twenty years of credited service. Id. at ¶21. She acknowledges that she understood, in 1998, that money was being withheld for pension payments, but was not withheld previously. Supplemental Brief in Support of Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint, Ex. A (“Deft. Ex. A”), pp. 28-29.[2] Moreover, prior to 2014, she knew that part-time employees did not receive a retirement pension, and full-time employees did receive a retirement pension. Id. at p. 54.

         In terms of Plaintiff's conduct, she testified that she generally did not open the paystubs, which reflected deductions, that she received in the mail; and that she received pension statements reflecting her participation in 1999 and later years, but chose not to read them because she “wasn't thinking about retiring, ” and “[i]t wasn't important” to her at the time. Id. at pp. 73, 84-85, 87-88. As Plaintiff acknowledges, “[i]t is unconstested that [her pay stubs and pension statements] contain information concerning pension plan deductions and Evans' initial participation date.” Plaintiff's Supplemental Brief in Opposition to Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, p. 8.

         In May of 1998, Plaintiff was advised that social security had been withheld in error, because she was a member of the Plan, and that she would be reimbursed. Id. at pp. 28-29. Prior to 2014, she did not understand the relation between pay deductions related to pension and social security, and made no inquiry regarding the deductions or reimbursement. Id. at pp. 29-30. At pertinent times, Plaintiff had the opportunity to ask supervisors about the deductions, but did not ask any questions. Id. at p. 74. She first learned of the injury and its cause on July 21, 2014, when she spoke with a representative of the company that handles the City's pension fund. Id. at pp. 91, 93, 95. At that time, Plaintiff was beginning to think about retiring, and spoke to the representative concerning her interest. Id. at p. 91.

         In addition to the facts and averments of record, those that are not of record bear mention. Plaintiff does not suggest that Defendant engaged in any conduct, misleading or otherwise, that precluded her from learning or inquiring about her participation in the Plan; nor does she identify any facts to the effect that information regarding her Plan eligibility or participation were in any way self-concealing or difficult to obtain at any time prior to 2014. Indeed, the record is devoid of evidence that Plaintiff undertook any inquiry, exploration, or investigation at all regarding her retirement benefits or status prior to July 21, 2014. Further, she neither avers nor suggests that she did not know prior to 2015 that part-time workers, precluded from Plan participation, were predominantly female.

         II. Standard of Review

         This matter was presented to the Court pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), and in the supplemental briefs filed following the limited period of discovery, the parties continue to point to Rule 12 standards. Upon review of a motion to dismiss, the Court must accept all well-pleaded facts and allegations, and must draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in favor of the plaintiff. Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc., 662 F.3d 212, 220 (3d Cir. 2011), cert. denied, 132 S.Ct. 1861 (20120). However, as the Supreme Court of the United States has made clear, such "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007).

         However, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d), to the extent that Defendants' Motion relies on matters outside the pleadings, it must be considered under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Rule 56(c)(2) provides that summary judgment shall be granted if the "pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." The moving party has the initial burden of proving to the district court the absence of evidence supporting the non-moving party's claims. Andreoli v. Gates, 482 F.3d 641, 647 (3d Cir. 2007). The burden then shifts to the non-movant to come forward with specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). The non-movant "must present more than just bare assertions, conclusory allegations or suspicions to show the existence of a genuine issue." Garcia v. Kimmell, 381 F. App'x 211 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoting Podobnik v. U.S. Postal Serv., 409 F.3d 584, 594 (3d Cir. 2005)). The court must consider the evidence, and all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986).

         III. Legal Analysis

         As a threshold matter, Defendants argue that Plaintiff's claim is time-barred. They argue that she knew or should have known that she was not contributing to the Plan until 1998, because she was ineligible due to her employment status, and that she began contributing a percentage of her wages upon attainment of eligibility on January 16 or 17, 1998. Accordingly, Defendants argue, her claims accrued no later than January 16, 1998, the date that she attained full-time status and became eligible to contribute to the Plan. In opposition, Plaintiff points to her allegations that she retired in 2015 based on the belief that she had twenty years of credited service, and that she had been working full-time hours for more than twenty years, even though she was not designated as a full-time employee for all of those years. In essence, she relies on evidence that she had no actual knowledge of the pertinent facts prior to July 21, 2014, when she made inquiries due to her interest in retiring, and urges that the limitations period should be tolled as a result.

         The limitations period for civil actions brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is determined by state law. Under Pennsylvania law, the applicable limitations period for civil rights actions asserted under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is two years. See 42 Pa. C.S. § 5524. In turn, the date when a civil rights action accrues is a matter of federal law. Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 280 n.6, 114 S.Ct. 807, 127 L.Ed.2d 114 (1994) (J. Ginsburg, concurring). Under federal law, "[a] section 1983 cause of action accrues when the plaintiff knew or should have known of the injury upon which its action is based." Peele v. McLaughlin, 641 F. App'x 111, 112 (3d Cir. 2016) (quoting Sameric Corp. v. City of Philadelphia, 142 F.3d 582, 599 (3d Cir. 1998). Although the statute of limitations is typically an affirmative defense, a plaintiff bears the burden ...

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