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Stephenson v. American Dental Association

January 17, 2002


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-3718-99) (Hon. Gregory E. Mize, Trial Judge)

Before Steadman and Washington, Associate Judges, and Ferren, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ferren, Senior Judge

Argued November 7, 2001

Maurice Stephenson appeals from the trial court's grant of summary judgment, ruling that the three-year statute of limitations barred his complaint. D.C. Code § 12-301 (8) (2001). Stephenson sued the American Dental Association (ADA) and Drs. Frederick Eichmiller and Rafael Bowen, directors of the ADA Paffenberger Research Center, alleging wrongful termination of his employment. He argues on appeal that the statute of limitations began to run from the actual termination date, not from the date - sixty days earlier - he received notice of the decision to terminate. Stephenson received oral notice of the termination on March 28, 1996, and a confirming memorandum on March 29, 1996. The March 29 memorandum indicated that his last day of employment would be May 28, 1996. Stephenson filed his complaint on May 28, 1999. The trial court concluded that the statute of limitations had run two months earlier on March 29, 1999. We agree and, thus, affirm.


Stephenson began employment as a Chief Research Scientist at the ADA Paffenberger Research Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in July 1994. Stephenson alleges that appellees - using a pretext of poor relations with colleagues and subordinates - terminated his employment because of his unwillingness to participate in the preparation and filing of a false research report to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in support of ADA grant objectives for the period of May 1995 to May 1996. According to Stephenson, Eichmiller and Marjenhoff orally informed him on March 28, 1996, that his employment would end sixty days later. The termination was confirmed by memorandum dated and delivered to Stephenson on March 29, 1996. *fn1 Stephenson filed this action over three years later on May 28, 1999.

Appellees argue that Stephenson had been terminated not only because of persistent difficulties in working collaboratively with colleagues and subordinates but also because of concerns about his technical expertise, as well as about his job application, in which appellees claim to have discovered - after he was on the job - false entries about his previous work experience. In any event, appellees contend that Stephenson's claim is time-barred.

The trial court agreed with appellees, granting their motion for summary judgment on the ground that Stephenson had filed his complaint after the three-year statute of limitations had expired. In this appeal, Stephenson contends that the trial court erred in determining that the statute of limitations began to run no later than March 28 or 29, 1996, the date of notice, not May 28, 1996, the last day of employment. *fn2


We conduct de novo review of a trial court's grant of summary judgment. Anderson v. Ford Motor Co., 682 A.2d. 651, 652 (D.C. 1996). "Summary judgment is appropriate only if there are no genuine issues of material fact in dispute and if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Weishapl v. Sowers, 771 A.2d 1014, 1020 (D.C. 2001) (citations omitted); Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56 (c).

Stephenson based his claim for wrongful termination on the public policy exception to the "at-will" employment doctrine this court recognized in Adams v. George W. Cochran & Co., 597 A.2d 28, 33 (D.C. 1991). In Adams, we allowed an at-will employee to sue his employer for a tortious discharge based solely on the employee's refusal to perform an illegal act. Id. at 33-34. Stephenson alleges that he was terminated wrongfully because he refused to turn in a falsified research report to the federal government. There is no dispute that his claim, based on public policy, is governed by the three-year statute of limitations set forth in D.C. Code § 12-301 (8) (2001).

In concluding that Stephenson's claim was time-barred, the trial court relied on the Supreme Court's decisions in Delaware State College v. Ricks, 449 U.S. 250 (1980), and Chardon v. Fernandez, 454 U.S. 6 (1981). In Ricks, plaintiff, a college professor, received notice on June 26, 1974, from the President and Board of Trustees of the defendant college denying him tenure. In accordance with its practice, the college offered plaintiff - and he signed - a one-year "terminal contract" expiring June 30, 1975. Ricks, 449 U.S. at 253. Plaintiff had received "explicit notice that his employment would end upon [the contract's] expiration." Id. at 258. Plaintiff filed a discrimination suit on September 9, 1977, alleging that his denial of tenure had been based impermissibly on his national origin. Id. at 254. The Supreme Court held that the statute of limitations began to run on June 26, 1974, when he was notified that his employment would terminate a year later, at the expiration of the "terminal contract." Id. at 261-62. In ruling that the applicable three-year statute of limitations barred plaintiff's complaint, filed on September 9, 1977, the Court added: "In sum, the only alleged discrimination occurred - and the filing limitations periods therefore commenced - at the time the tenure decision was made and communicated to [plaintiff]. That is so even though one of the effects of the denial of tenure - the eventual loss of a teaching position - did not occur until later." Id. at 258 (emphasis in original).

In Chardon, a civil rights action for wrongful termination, the Supreme Court applied the Ricks rationale. Before June 18, 1977, all plaintiffs - non-tenured administrators in the Puerto Rico Department of Education, Chardon, 454 U.S. at 6 - received a letter notifying them that their respective appointments would terminate as of specified dates between June 30 and August 8, 1977. Id. at 7. On June 19, 1978, after the one-year statute of limitations had expired, at least one of the plaintiffs filed a complaint for wrongful termination. Id. The Court concluded that Ricks, which concerned a denial of tenure, was "indistinguishable." Id. at 8. In applying Ricks, the Court further stated:

In Ricks, we held that the proper focus is on the time of the discriminatory act, not the point at which the consequences of the act become painful. The fact of termination is not itself an illegal act. In Ricks, the alleged illegal act was racial discrimination in the tenure decision. Here, respondents allege that the decision to terminate was made solely for political reasons, violative of First Amendment rights. There were no other allegations, either in Ricks or in these cases, of illegal acts subsequent to the date on which decisions to terminate were made. As we noted in Ricks, "[mere] continuity of employment, without more, is insufficient to prolong the life of a cause of action for employment discrimination." In the cases at bar, respondents were notified, when they received their letters, that a final decision ...

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