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Home / Fourth Circuit / Labor & Employment – City Worker’s USERRA Claim Too Late

Labor & Employment – City Worker’s USERRA Claim Too Late

CWO3 Oakley Dean Baldwin v. City of Greensboro, N.C. (Lawyers Weekly No. 13-01-0463, 20 pp.) (Thacker, J.) No. 12-1722, May 6, 2013; USDC at Greensboro, N.C. (Osteen, J.) 4th Cir.

Holding: A chief warrant officer in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves, who left his job as a municipal waste manager for periods of active service with the Coast Guard, waited too long to file his suit under the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, and the 4th Circuit affirms the district court decision that the suit is barred by the four-year federal “catchall” statute of limitations under 28 U.S.C. § 1658(a).

We hold that § 1658(a) applies to plaintiff’s claims because the language of the statute unambiguously applies to civil actions arising under laws that, like USERRA, were enacted after Dec. 1, 1990, and USERRA’s successor statute (which eliminated the statute of limitations on USERRA claims) does not apply retroactively.

Plaintiff’s first contention is that USERRA, which Congress enacted on Oct. 13, 1994, was simply clarifying the VRRA, which Congress enacted in 1974; thus, his claims did not arise under an act of Congress enacted after Dec. 1, 1990. One of our sister circuits has addressed this argument and found it to be without merit.

USERRA did more than simply clarify the Veterans Reemployment Rights Act of 1974 (VRRA). USERRA changed a solely equitable claim into a legal one, and plaintiff’s amended complaint, which explicitly asked for a jury trial and liquidated damages pursuant to USERAA, would not have been possible under the VRRA. Plaintiff’s argument that his USERRA claims did not arise under a post-1990 congressional enactment fails.

Plaintiff next contends USERRA falls into the “otherwise provided by law” exception to § 1658(a). However, none of his arguments trump the crucial fact plaintiff admits in his own brief: USERRA did not explicitly state that no time limits apply to USERRA claims.

The Veterans’ Benefit and Improvement Act of 2008 (VBIA), enacted Oct. 10, 2008, provides in 38 U.S.C. § 4327(b), that if any person seeks to file a complaint or claim with a federal or state court under this chapter alleging violation of this chapter, there shall be no limit on the period for filing the complaint. Plaintiff argues this section was enacted to further clarify what Congress meant to do in USERRA – to bar all time limitations on claims like his – and thus, VBIA’s bar on all statutes of limitation should apply retroactively to his claims. In light of the presumption against retroactivity and the fact that we would be reviving otherwise stale claims in the absence of congressional intent to do so, we decline to extend § 4327(b) retroactively to plaintiff’s claims. We reject plaintiff’s argument that the VBIA mean to graft upon preceding legislation a statute of limitations that was never explicitly provided. Therefore, the four-year limitation of 28 U.S.C. § 1658(a) applies to plaintiff’s USERRA claim.

We turn now to plaintiff’s arguments that the limitations time was tolled – both legally and equitably – such that he timely filed his USERRA claims.

A federal cause of action accrues when the plaintiff possesses sufficient facts about the harm done to him that reasonable inquiry will reveal his cause of action. The amended complaint here alleged two causes of action: 1) violation of USERRA  § 4311 for failure to retain plaintiff in his employment position; and 2) violation of USERRA § 4312 for failing to reemploy him. Both of these actions were encompassed by the release executed by plaintiff, and he had sufficient facts to know he may have viable claims. We agree with the district court that the action accrued on Jan. 23, 2003.

We reject plaintiff’s contention that his claims should be tolled by operation of law during the time he was on active duty and time the Department of Labor was investigating his case, and that his claims should be equitably tolled due to delays caused by the city.

Even taking into account the time periods of plaintiff’s active duty service and the DOL investigations, he still did not file his USERRA claims within the four-year statute of limitations period. Plaintiff’s claims would have expired on Monday, March 24, 2008. He filed suit one and one-half years later, on Sept. 29, 2009. Nor can we say the district court abused its discretion in refusing to toll the statute of limitations for the time the DOL case was closed.

Judgment for defendant city affirmed.

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