Baldwin v. City of Greensboro, No. 12-1722

Decided: May 6, 2013

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.

Baldwin began working for the City of Greensboro (the “City”) as the Solid Waste Division Manager in February of 2001. In August of 2002, he informed his supervisors, Covington and Johnson, that at some point in the near future he would be called up to active duty with the United States Coast Guard. After revealing this information, Baldwin alleged that his employment relationship changed and he “began receiving harassment” from Covington. Further, he claimed that, after informing Johnson of the alleged harassment, he was informed that he would be subject to a reduction-in-force (“RIF”), to be effective upon his reporting to active duty. Baldwin was activated by the military soon thereafter and on January 23, he and Johnson signed an agreement, in which Baldwin agreed to receive various benefits in lieu of continued employment with the City following his release from active duty. Notably, the agreement further stated, “Mr. Baldwin agrees that this arrangement was made at his request and waives his right to any claims against the City of Greensboro.” On July 13, 2006 Baldwin filed a claim with the Department of Labor (“DOL”) under the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (“USERRA”). The DOL investigated his case until March of 2007, at which point the case was closed at Baldwin’s request. Subsequently, the DOL reopened his file in December of 2008 and again Baldwin asked the DOL to close his file in January of 2009. Thereafter, Baldwin filed his first complaint with the district court on September 29, 2009 alleging USERRA violations. An amended complaint was filed on February 1, 2011. On May 7, 2012, the district court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case because the statute of limitations had run.

On appeal, Baldwin argued that the four-year statute of limitations set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 1658(a) did not apply to his claims because (1) USERRA did not “arise under” an act of Congress enacted after December 1, 1990 as it simply clarified the Veteran’s Reemployment Rights Act of 1974 (the “VRRA”); (2) USERRA falls into the “otherwise provided by law” exception to § 1658(a); and (3) the Veterans Benefit and Improvement Act of 2008 (“VBIA”), which eliminated the statute of limitations for USERRA claims, should apply retroactively to bar all time limitations on his claims. Rejecting Baldwin’s first contention, the Fourth Circuit found that, because USERRA established additional rights and liabilities that did not exist under the VRRA, Baldwin’s USERRA claims did “arise under” a post-1990 congressional enactment. Next, the court found that the exception to § 1658(a) did not apply as “Congress expressed no desire for USERRA claims to be immune from § 1658(a)’s limitations period.” Finally, the court addressed Baldwin’s argument that VBIA should apply retroactively to bar all time limitations on his claims, declining to do so because of the presumption against retroactivity and the fact that there was no congressional intent to revive otherwise stale claims by extending the VBIA’s elimination of the statute of limitations on Baldwin’s USERRA claims.

Having decided that the four-year statute of limitations did apply to Baldwin’s claims, the court turned to his argument that the limitations time was tolled—both legally and equitably—such that he timely filed his USERRA claims. In rejecting this argument, the court first observed that Baldwin’s action accrued on January 23, 2003 and noted that, absent tolling; the statute of limitations would have expired on January 23, 2007. Because the court found that, as a result of legal tolling, Baldwin’s claims would have expired on March 24, 2008 and that the record lacked any evidence to warrant equitable tolling, his claims were barred as he did not file his claim until September 29, 2009.

Full Opinion

-W. Ryan Nichols

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