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Buntin v. City of Boston

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

December 29, 2015

JEANNETTE BUNTIN, Plaintiff, Appellant,


W.Kendall, with whom Law Office of W.Kendall was on brief, for appellant.

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

Before Kayatta, Stahl, and Barron, Circuit Judges.


Jeannette Buntin's late father, Oswald Hixon, was formerly employed as a mechanic by the City of Boston ("City"). Buntin, proceeding as the administratrix of Hixon's estate, brought suit alleging that the City and Hixon's supervisors, James McGonagle and Scott Alther, discriminated against Hixon on the basis of his race and retaliated against him by terminating his employment.[1] Concluding that Buntin had not pled facts sufficient to support one claim and had failed to timely exhaust the administrative prerequisites necessary to bring suit on another claim, the district court dismissed Buntin's complaint. After careful review, we AFFIRM in part and REVERSE in part.

I. Facts and Background

We set forth the facts as alleged in Buntin's complaint. Hixon, who is black, was hired by the City in 2002 to work as a mechanic at the City's public works facility. At all relevant times, Hixon's immediate supervisors were Alther and McGonagle, both of whom are white. In 2007, Hixon failed a random drug and alcohol test and was put on probation and required to undergo counselling. Hixon protested his selection for the test, which he suggested was made on the basis of race.

Roughly four years later, on Friday, February 4, 2011, Alther and McGonagle issued Hixon a written warning for bringing his personal vehicle into a City garage for repairs in violation of a City policy. Hixon protested the warning "vociferously" and pointed out to Alther and McGonagle that white employees had violated the same policy (and other City policies in place at the time) without consequence.

The following Monday, February 7, 2011, Hixon returned to work and was informed that he had been suspended. Then, on February 10, Hixon was notified that he had been terminated based on a purported violation of the City's drug and alcohol policy, an explanation that the complaint alleges was both untrue and merely a pretext for unlawful discrimination and retaliation.[2]

In January 2013, Hixon filed an application for unemployment benefits with the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance ("DUA"). Alther and McGonagle appeared at a series of ensuing hearings and allegedly testified falsely that Hixon had been under the influence of controlled substances at work and had refused to submit to a drug and alcohol test.[3] Soon thereafter, Hixon applied for reinstatement with the City, but was not offered a job.

Thereafter, on December 13, 2013, Hixon filed a charge with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination ("MCAD"), which dismissed his charge as untimely.[4] Hixon passed away in 2014, and Buntin was appointed as the administratrix of his estate.

Buntin brought this lawsuit on behalf of Hixon's estate on February 6, 2015 in Massachusetts Superior Court, asserting a total of seventeen claims against the Defendants under both state and federal law. While the complaint is confusing at times, Buntin's federal claims appear to arise under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 ("Section 1981") and 1983 ("Section 1983"). As we read it, the Section 1981 claim alleges that the Defendants discriminatorily terminated Hixon on the basis of race and, separately, retaliated against him by suspending him and terminating his employment for protesting his discriminatory treatment.[5] The Section 1983 claim appears to be premised on the same allegations of discrimination and retaliation, as well as the City's failure to provide Hixon with a "name-clearing hearing" after Alther and McGonagle's testimony at the 2013 DUA hearings impugned his reputation. The Defendants promptly removed the suit to the district court and then moved to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

In ruling on the motion to dismiss, the district court considered only the federal claims. Buntin v. City of Boston, No. 15-10556-RGS, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 60561 (D. Mass. May 8, 2015). The district court concluded that the Section 1981 claim must be dismissed because Buntin failed to exhaust her administrative remedies by filing a timely charge of discrimination with the MCAD before bringing suit. Id. at *10. With respect to the Section 1983 claim, the district court ...

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