BURNETT V. GRATTAN, 468 U. S. 42 (1984)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Burnett v. Grattan, 468 U.S. 42 (1984)

Burnett v. Grattan

No. 83-264

Argued March 26, 1984

Decided June 27, 1984

468 U.S. 42


Respondents filed an action in a Maryland state court against petitioner officers of the state college where respondents were employed, claiming employment discrimination in violation of, inter alia, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983, 1985, and 1986 (Civil Rights Acts). Petitioners removed the action to Federal District Court. Because the Civil Rights Acts contain no statute of limitations, the District Court borrowed a 6-month limitations period from a Maryland statute that establishes a procedure for administrative resolution of employment discrimination complaints, and granted petitioners' motion to dismiss the action because the complaint had been filed more than six months after respondents' causes of action had accrued. The Court of Appeals found the 6-month period inappropriate, and, applying Maryland's 3-year statute of limitations for all civil actions for which a statutory limitation period is not otherwise provided, held that the action was not time-barred.

Held: While federal courts properly turn to state law for statutes of limitations in actions under the Civil Rights Acts, borrowing the limitations period from an administrative employment discrimination statute was inappropriate. Both the practical differences between litigation and an administrative proceeding and the divergence in the objectives of the federal causes of action and the state administrative procedure lead to this conclusion. On the one hand, the practical difficulties facing an aggrieved person in an action under the Civil Rights Acts involve such matters as recognizing the constitutional dimensions of the claimed injury, obtaining counsel or preparing to proceed pro se, establishing the amount of damages, and preparing legal documents. On the other hand, the sole responsibility of an aggrieved person who invokes the state administrative remedies is to make, sign, and file a complaint with the Human Relations Commission, which then has the burden of investigating and developing the case. And the goals of the Civil Rights Acts to compensate persons whose civil rights have been violated and to prevent the abuse of state power are far different from the goals of the state administrative employment procedure. The administrative scheme, including the short statute of limitations, encourages prompt identification, conciliation, and private settlement of employment disputes through the State Commission's intervention. Pp. 47-55.

710 F.2d 160, affirmed.

Page 468 U. S. 43

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 468 U. S. 56. REHNQUIST, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BURGER, C.J.,and O'CONNOR, J., joined, post, p. 468 U. S. 56.

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