CROWN CORK & SEAL CO., INC. V. PARKER, 462 U. S. 345 (1983)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Crown Cork & Seal Co., Inc. v. Parker, 462 U.S. 345 (1983)

Crown Cork & Seal Co., Inc. v. Parker

No. 82-118

Argued April 18, 1983

Decided June 13, 1983

462 U.S. 345


Respondent, a Negro male, after being discharged by petitioner employer in 1977, filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which, on November 9, 1978, upon finding no reasonable cause to believe the charge was true, sent respondent a Notice of Right to Sue pursuant to § 706(f) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Previously, while respondent's charge was still pending before the EEOC, two other Negro males formerly employed by petitioner had filed a class action against petitioner in Federal District Court, alleging employment discrimination and purporting to represent a class of which respondent was a member. Subsequently, on September 4, 1980, the District Court denied the named plaintiffs' motion for class certification, and the action then proceeded as an individual action. Within 90 days thereafter, but almost two years after receiving his Notice of Right to Sue, respondent filed an action under Title VII against petitioner in Federal District Court, alleging that his discharge was racially motivated. The District Court granted summary judgment for petitioner on the ground that respondent had failed to file his action within 90 days of receiving his Notice of Right to Sue as required by § 706(f)(1). The Court of Appeals reversed.

Held: The filing of the class action tolled the statute of limitations for respondent and other members of the putative class. Since respondent did not receive his Notice of Right to Sue until after the class action was filed, he retained a full 90 days in which to bring suit after class certification was denied, and hence his suit was timely filed. Pp. 462 U. S. 349-354.

(a) While American Pipe & Constr. Co. v. Utah, 414 U. S. 538, concerned only intervenors in a class action, the holding of that case -- that the filing of a class action tolls the running of the applicable statute of limitations for all asserted members of the class -- is to be read as not being limited to intervenors, but as extending to class members filing separate actions. Otherwise, class members would be led to file individual actions prior to denial of class certification in order to preserve their rights. The result would be a needless multiplicity of actions -- precisely the situation that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 and the tolling rule of American Pipe were designed to avoid. Pp. 462 U. S. 349-351.

(b) Failure to apply American Pipe to class members filing separate actions would also be inconsistent with this Court's reliance on American

Page 462 U. S. 346

Pipe in Eisen v. Carlisle & Jacquelin, 417 U. S. 156, where it was held that Rule 23(c)(2) required individual notice to class members so that each of them could decide whether to "opt out" of the class and thereby preserve his right to pursue his own lawsuit. A class member would be unable to pursue his own lawsuit if the limitations period had expired while the class action was pending. Pp. 462 U. S. 351-352.

(c) A tolling rule for class actions is not inconsistent with the purposes served by statutes of limitations of putting defendants on notice of adverse claims and of preventing plaintiffs from sleeping on their rights. These ends are met when a class action is filed. Class members who do not file suit while the class action is pending cannot be accused of sleeping on their rights. And a class complaint notifies the defendants not only of the claims against them, but also of the number and generic identities of the potential plaintiffs. Pp. 462 U. S. 352-353.

(d) Once the commencement of a class action suspends the applicable statute of limitations as to all putative members of the class, it remains suspended until class certification is denied. Pp. 462 U. S. 353-354.

677 F.2d 391, affirmed.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which REHNQUIST and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 462 U. S. 354.

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