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Royall v. National Association of Letter Carriers

November 21, 2008

CHARLES ROYALL, APPELLANT
v.
NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF LETTER CARRIERS, AFL-CIO, APPELLEE



Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. (No. 05cv01711).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rogers, Circuit Judge

Argued October 8, 2008

Before: HENDERSON and ROGERS, Circuit Judges and RANDOLPH, Senior Circuit Judge.

This is an appeal from the grant of summary judgment in an employment discrimination case filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981. As a threshold matter, the National Association of Letter Carriers ("the Union") contends that the court lacks jurisdiction because the appeal is untimely. Although the notice of appeal was not timely docketed in the district court, we hold that the appeal is timely because the notice of appeal was electronically filed within the thirty-day period for appeals in a civil case. Under the federal rules of civil and appellate procedure, the district court electronic filing system's failure to docket the notice within that period is not attributable to Royall. On the merits, we hold that the grant of summary judgment was appropriate because there was no evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that the Union's reason for terminating Charles Royall's employment was a pretext for unlawful discrimination.

I.

In February 2002, the Union hired Royall, an African American, as an accounting manager. His responsibilities included handling payroll and the associated deductions and benefits, entering vendor bills into the accounting system, and ensuring that the Union paid its bills and taxes on time. According to Union President William Young and the Secretary-Treasurer Jane Broendel, Royall indicated during his employment interview that "he was familiar" with the J.D. Edwards accounting program that the Union used, and that "he was a quick study, and he would be right up and running with it." Young Dep. at 28; see Broendel Dep. at 13.

From the Union's perspective, Royall's performance did not meet expectations. According to Young, Royall "never did grasp [the] J.D. Edwards [system]," and, as a result, failed to make entries into the system that would have allowed the W-2 forms to be generated automatically. Young Dep. at 28. He based his opinion on what Broendel and finance director Ronald Stubblefield told him and on what he personally knew. Sukja Neidlinger, the payroll clerk, reported that it took Royall two months to learn basic payroll. Other Union employees also noted inadequacies in Royall's performance, including paying bills, taxes, and employees' benefits late. The Union incurred penalties because of the late tax payments during Royall's tenure. Several Union officers, including Young and Broendel, received complaints about these late payments from employees and vendors; they also received complaints about Royall's performance from other employees. Broendel was of the view that the only satisfactory elements of Royall's performance were that he arrived on time, did not leave early, and did not call in sick excessively.

Frank Sclafani, a temporary employee who later became the finance director, documented some of the inadequacies in Royall's performance in an undated memorandum to Broendel about the accounting department generally. While observing that there were "always two sides to every story," Sclafani advised that Royall's accounting abilities were "suspect" and that "unless actively supervised [Royall's work] is often incomplete or not timely, and in too many cases, inaccurate." Royall also did not demonstrate a willingness to take on or complete the tasks assigned to him, causing the finance director over time to rely on him less and less. In Sclafani's opinion, Royall's lack of ability would continue to have "a major detrimental effect on the work flow in the department." Sclafani also pointed out that while the J.D. Edwards system was "very versatile," its database was neither intuitive nor were the day-today accounting processes easy to learn, and the system required a "highly proficient user to harness [its] power and make the database a useful accounting tool."

Disputing the evidence about his performance, Royall claimed that he had been complimented on his satisfactory performance on several occasions. He pointed out that his position had been vacant for six months and that he had caught up on the bonds, made deposits for taxes and payroll on time, eliminated insurance premium payments for people who had died, and completed Neidlinger's payroll while she was on vacation. Stubblefield complimented him for getting current on the bonds, as had Broendel, who had never criticized him despite almost daily interaction, and Royall was unaware that Neidlinger had any "problems" with him. In fact, prior to his termination, Royall had never been disciplined for the alleged inadequacies in his performance. Further, Royall pointed out that various of the errors the Union officers had described took place several months before his termination. Additionally, he claimed that he knew nothing about the J.D. Edwards system before he started working for the Union. Critically, however, Royall did not deny that on two occasions he had paid the Union's taxes late and paid employee benefit claims late. He also acknowledged that there were other complaints about his work but attributed some of the problems to matters that were his supervisor's responsibility.

Upon discussing Royall's performance with Stubblefield and Broendel, Young fired Royall six months after he was hired. According to Young, "the only reason Royall's employment was terminated is he was not able to do all of the functions of the position that he was hired to do, and we couldn't get the finance department in order without someone who was able to do the things that he was supposed to do." Young Dep. at 50.

Royall filed suit against the Union on the ground that he was terminated because of his race in violation of § 1981. He alleged that he had performed his duties in an acceptable manner, that claims he was not doing his job were false, and that he was replaced by a white male who was allowed to return to his former position after a few months of inadequate performance. He alleged as well that the Union terminated the employment of another African American male, Stubblefield, after Royall's discharge because he "ostensibly 'didn't fit in.'" Compl. ¶ 12. The Union answered and then moved for summary judgment, which Royall opposed. The district court granted the Union's motion and Royall appeals.

II.

The Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure require a notice of appeal in a civil case to be filed within thirty days of entry of the judgment or order being appealed. FED. R. APP. P. 4(a)(1). This time period is jurisdictional and mandatory. Bowles v. Russell, 127 S.Ct. 2360, 2363-64 (2007); see 28 U.S.C. § 2107. A notice's improper form does not require dismissal of the appeal. Under Rule 83(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, "[a] local rule imposing a requirement of form must not be enforced in a way that causes a party to lose any right because of a non-willful failure to comply." Likewise, Rule 5(d)(4) provides that "[t]he clerk must not refuse to file a paper solely because it is not in the form prescribed by these rules or by a local rule or practice." FED. R. CIV. P. 5(d)(4). Relatedly, Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 3(c)(4) bars dismissal of an appeal because of the notice of appeal's "informality of form or title."

The local rules of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia require all documents to be submitted electronically. D.D.C. R. 5.4(a). The clerk of the district court, however, has issued general information stating that a notice of appeal "cannot be filed by an attorney using the CM/ECF system."*fn1 More recently, the clerk has issued instructions for online filing of notices of appeal.*fn2 The Union does not suggest that Royall's appeal is untimely because of noncompliance with the requirement of the ...


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