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Buntin v. City of Boston

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

May 15, 2017

JEANNETTE BUNTIN, Plaintiff, Appellant,
v.
CITY OF BOSTON; JAMES MCGONAGLE; SCOTT ALTHER, Defendants, Appellees.

         APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS [Hon. Richard G. Stearns, U.S. District Judge]

          W. Kendall and Law Office of W. Kendall on brief for appellant.

          Nicole M. O'Connor, Senior Assistant Corporation Counsel, City of Boston Law Department, and Eugene L. O'Flaherty, Corporation Counsel, on brief for appellees.

          Before Torruella, Selya, and Lynch, Circuit Judges.

          LYNCH, Circuit Judge.

         This appeal causes us to decide a question of first impression in this circuit. We hold that a plaintiff may not bring claims for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 against state actors, including defendants sued in their official capacities as government officials -- here, employees of the City of Boston. This result is required by Jett v. Dallas Independent School District, in which the Supreme Court held that § 1981 does not provide an implied private right of action for damages against such officials and that "the express cause of action for damages created by [42 U.S.C.] § 1983 constitutes the exclusive federal remedy for violation of the rights guaranteed in § 1981 by state governmental units." 491 U.S. 701, 733 (1989). Congress has not, in the nearly three decades since Jett, demonstrated any intention to compel a different result. Our holding brings us into agreement with eight other circuits, and into disagreement with only one. We affirm the district court's dismissal of the action.

         I.

         A. Facts and Procedural History

         In a prior appeal in this case, we affirmed dismissal of the complaint's § 1983 claims on statute of limitations grounds. The dismissal of those § 1983 claims provides pertinent background. We also found error in the dismissal of the § 1981 claims on the sole ground of failure to exhaust administrative remedies, and we remanded to the district court. Buntin v. City of Boston (Buntin I), 813 F.3d 401 (1st Cir. 2015).

         We repeat only the essential facts here; our earlier decision provides a more complete description. See id. at 403- 04. The plaintiff, Jeannette Buntin, represents the estate of her late father Oswald Hixon, a black man, and sued in state court on February 6, 2015. The case was later removed to federal court. Hixon was employed by the City of Boston as a repairman in the Department of Public Works ("DPW") and was supervised by defendants Scott Alther and James McGonagle, both of whom are white men. In 2007, Hixon was suspended for twenty days without pay, after failing a random drug and alcohol test. Hixon was fired on February 10, 2011. The reason given was his second violation of the City's drug and alcohol policy.

         The complaint alleges that this stated ground for termination was a pretext for racial discrimination and retaliation against Hixon for protesting past discriminatory treatment at work. It also alleges that in January 2013, after Hixon applied for state unemployment benefits, [1] Alther and McGonagle testified falsely at hearings that Hixon had been under the influence of drugs or alcohol at work and had refused to take a required drug and alcohol test. Hixon died in 2014.[2]

         B. District Court Proceedings on Remand

         On remand from this court, the parties engaged in discovery with respect to Buntin's § 1981 damages claims -- which were all that remained of the lawsuit after Buntin I -- and then filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

         On September 19, 2016, the district court granted summary judgment to the defendants. Buntin v. City of Boston, 209 F.Supp.3d 368 (D. Mass. 2016). The court applied Jett, reviewed post-Jett legislation, held that § 1981 provides no implied private right of action for damages against state actors, id. at 369-71, dismissed the federal claims, and remanded the remaining state law claims to state court, id. at 371.

         II.

         We begin by clearing away a threshold argument made by Buntin. Although Buntin admits that Buntin I did not explicitly address the question at hand, she argues that Buntin I, by holding that the complaint's factual allegations "plausibly suggest that Buntin is entitled to relief on a [§] 1981 claim, " 813 F.3d at 406, necessarily also made an implicit holding that ยง 1981 provides an implied private right of action for ...


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