APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY - NEWARK.
Seitz, Chief Judge, Gibbons and Rosenn, Circuit Judges.
This case requires us to clarify a critical question concerning the doctrine of equitable tolling in a case charging a violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Because we believe the district court erred in concluding that as a matter of law plaintiff failed to allege facts that, if proven at trial, could compel a court to equitably toll the applicable statute of limitations, we reverse and remand for trial.
In late 1977 plaintiff Joseph W. Meyer, then a sixty-one year old resident of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, was employed by defendant Riegel Products Corporation, Inc. (Riegel), a New Jersey manufacturer of specialty paper. Plaintiff had been employed by Riegel for approximately thirty years, attaining the position of Environmental Control Supervisor. His duties encompassed two distinct jobs: responsibility for effluent water quality and air pollution control at three of Riegel's New Jersey mills and supervision of a project engineering group covering mechanical, structural, survey, and process assignment in connection with all four of Riegel's New Jersey mills. At the time the events of late 1977 transpired, plaintiff's salary was $22,412. He had recently been promoted on July 6, 1977, and his employer did not seem to have been in any way displeased with plaintiff's job performance.
On September 18, 1977, James River Corporation of Virginia (James River), a holding company, had acquired Riegel. Despite contemporaneous assertions leading Riegel employees to believe the contrary, James River in discussions with Riegel management immediately preceding the acquisition expressed plans to dismiss some of Riegel's salaried personnel once the acquisition had been completed. Not surprisingly, therefore, rumors of layoffs began to spread among Riegel employees. On or around November 11, supervisor Robert Swick informed plaintiff that the axe had fallen on him and that he was dismissed effective November 25. Swick added that plaintiff has been the recipient of "a real screwing." Shortly before this notice of dismissal, plaintiff had a conversation with fellow employee Ralph Fisher, who observed that Riegel's older salaried employees had reason to be worried. This conversation, and supervisor Swick's remark as to plaintiff's "real screwing," dovetailed with the pervasive belief among employees that Riegel traditionally exploited older workers. At the time of his dismissal, in short, plaintiff had reason to suspect -- and in fact did suspect -- that age had played a role in Riegel's decision to let him go four years before he would be entitled to full pension benefits. On November 25 plaintiff worked his last day as a Riegel employee.
Several weeks later, plaintiff wrote to Riegel's Director of Personnel, seeking to ascertain both the reason for his discharge and the status of his pension benefits. At approximately the same time plaintiff mentioned to his daughter his desire to obtain legal advice, and she referred him to Michael Gordon, a Washington attorney who specializes in pension law.
On January 13, 1978, Director of Personnel Griffith replied to plaintiff's inquiry in a letter informing Meyer, among other things, that he had been dismissed "when the Engineering Department was reorganized due to the acquisition of Riegel Products Corporation by the James River Corporation." At approximately the same time this letter was written, defendant Riegel interviewed and hired Thomas E. Linder, Jr., a twenty-eight year old graduate of the University of Maine with a degree in Biology and Chemistry. Linder began work on February 13, 1978.
Throughout January 1978 plaintiff and attorney Gordon had conversations with each other regarding pension benefits, and also discussed the age discrimination issue. In February, after reviewing the information forwarded him by plaintiff, Gordon informed Meyer that it was doubtful they could make out a prima facie case of age discrimination. Accordingly, Gordon suggested that plaintiff seek to uncover evidence that might confirm his suspicions, and advised plaintiff to inform him of the results of that endeavor.
On or around May 1, 1978, plaintiff learned from a newsclipping sent him by a former Riegel employee that Thomas E. Linder, Jr., had been hired by Riegel to assume many of the environmental tasks plaintiff had performed. Plaintiff sent the clipping to Gordon, who informed him that in his judgment the basis for an age discrimination suit now existed and that he would therefore file a complaint with the appropriate New Jersey agency. On May 25, 1978, Gordon filed such a complaint with the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights. On September 22, 1978, Gordon then sent the required charge letter to the United States Department of Labor, which received it on September 26. The Department assumed jurisdiction over the charge and held a conciliation conference on March 19, 1979. Defendants declined to conciliate, however, purportedly because of the pendency of the New Jersey investigation.
On December 1, 1978, defendant Riegel filed an answer to the New Jersey complaint, alleging that plaintiff had been dismissed not because of the impending reorganization but because he was incompetent. The answer went on to suggest that James Griffith had used the "reorganization" justification as a way to spare plaintiff's feelings, ease his search for a new job, and make him eligible for severance pay. This allegation of incompetence, coming more than a year after plaintiff's dismissal, appears to have been the first indication that his job performance left anything to be desired. Evaluation forms filled out by plaintiff's superiors, for instance, reveal that they had been quite pleased with Meyer's performance.
In an April 1981 deposition for this action, Personnel Director Griffith offered yet another explanation of the dismissal: plaintiff, he maintained, had not been qualified to handle an environmental control job that Griffith contemplated creating during the time that James River was negotiating to acquire Riegel. The Company, Griffith said, had needed someone "aggressive," someone "vigorous," someone with a background that could handle chemical problems at some of the mills. Such an explanation had never before been mentioned to plaintiff. Nor had it been mentioned in the answer filed in the New Jersey proceedings. Sometime in 1979, after filing his charge letter with the Department of Labor, plaintiff learned from supervisor Swick that in May 1978 Riegel had ...