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No avoiding comprehensive exhaustion schemes of Title VII, ADA by Sec. 1983 end-run

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

Addressing the issue for the first time, the Third Circuit concluded a state employee’s ADA and Title VII claims, standing alone, could not be asserted under Section 1983, because that would allow her to thwart Congress’s carefully crafted administrative scheme under both the ADA and Title VII, including exhaustion requirements. Affirming summary judgment, the appeals court also agreed with the lower court that the employee failed to raise triable issues on her Title VII claims, because the only timely incidents of alleged discrimination were not sufficient to support harassment or constructive discharge claims (Williams v. Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, August 30, 2017, Fuentes, J.).

The long-time employee, who is African-American, worked as a human relations representative at the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC). She was tasked with investigating discrimination complaints, negotiating settlements, fact-finding, writing reports, and writing conciliation recommendations. According to the employee, her primary supervisor and the executive director of the office, who were both Caucasian, subjected her to constant harassment and discrimination due to race and disability, culminating in her constructive discharge.

Alleged mistreatment. As examples of mistreatment, the employee claimed she was suspended without pay for objecting to the presence of attorneys at a fact-finding conference; was denied workstation accommodations for fibromyalgia when the office moved (prior accommodations included a raised monitor, footstool, and voice-activated software, among other things); was improperly put on a performance improvement plan; was struck by a commission attorney while trying to leave the director’s office; was informed by a coworker that a commission attorney called her a “bitch;” and was wrongfully reprimanded for insubordination after a confrontation with the executive director. The employee took FMLA leave in August 2013 due to leg pain and muscle aches from fibromyalgia, but she never returned to work, instead resigning.

Lawsuit. The employee filed suit, alleging Title VII claims against the PHRC for discrimination, hostile work environment, and constructive discharge, and alleging Section 1983 claims against her two supervisors based on violations of Title VII and the ADA. Entering summary judgment for the individuals on the Section 1983 claims, the district court concluded that Title VII and ADA claims cannot be vindicated through Section 1983 because that would frustrate Congress’s statutory scheme. As for the Title VII claim against the PHRC, only her allegations of actions occurring within 300 days of her EEOC charge were timely, and the timely incidents were not severe or pervasive enough to establish a hostile work environment or constructive discharge, so summary judgment was also granted on these claims.

No ADA or Title VII claims through Section 1983. Affirming, the Third Circuit agreed with every circuit to have addressed the issue and concluded that plaintiffs may not seek damages under Section 1983 for stand-alone violations of either Title VII or the ADA. It is well settled that Section 1983 does not confer any substantive rights but merely provides a “method for vindicating federal rights” conferred elsewhere, and even where an independent right exists, Congress may choose to foreclose a Section 1983 remedy.

Relevant here, Title VII and the ADA use the same comprehensive remedial scheme. In states like Pennsylvania, which have agencies authorized to grant relief for employment discrimination, employees are required to exhaust their administrative remedies, giving the agency a chance to investigate and take remedial action. If that process fails, the EEOC may either file suit or authorize the employee to do so. In stark contrast, Section 1983 has only a one-step “remedial scheme” under which plaintiffs file suit directly in federal court with no administrative process to exhaust. Given these respective statutes, Congress’s intent was clear, and allowing Title VII and ADA claims under Section 1983 would thwart that carefully crafted administrative scheme.

The court also, in a short paragraph, agreed with the lower court that the Title VII claims against the PHRC are without merit.