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Guenther v. Griffin Construction Co., Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

January 19, 2017

Justin Guenther, Special Administrator, Estate of Semmie John Guenther Plaintiff- Appellant
Griffin Construction Company, Inc. Defendant-Appellee Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Amicus on Behalf of Appellant

          Submitted: September 21, 2016

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas - Fayetteville

          Before RILEY, Chief Judge, MURPHY and SMITH, Circuit Judges.

          RILEY, Chief Judge.

          This appeal asks whether a claim for compensatory damages brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101, et seq., survives or abates upon the death of the aggrieved party. Semmie John Guenther, Jr., filed an administrative charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging his former employer, Griffin Construction Company, Inc., discriminated against him on the basis of his disability. Guenther passed away while his charge was still pending, so the special administrator of his estate filed suit on his behalf when he received the EEOC right-to-sue letter. The district court dismissed the action, concluding federal common law called for application of the Arkansas survival statute, see Ark. Code Ann. § 16-62-101(a)(1), and finding Guenther's claim had abated. Guenther's estate appeals, and having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we reverse.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Guenther began working for Griffin Construction in 2008, and he oversaw construction projects across Arkansas and Texas for four years. In the spring of 2012, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Guenther requested and received roughly three weeks' leave from work to receive treatment, and he returned to work when it appeared the treatment was successful. In 2013, Guenther learned the cancer had spread throughout his body. He notified Griffin Construction he would need to take another three weeks' leave to undergo radiation therapy. Instead, Griffin Construction fired Guenther and told him he could reapply for any openings in the future if he wished. Despite alleged promises to the contrary, Griffin Construction also immediately cancelled Guenther's insurance policies.

         Guenther filed a timely charge of discrimination with the EEOC. He died before the administrative process was complete. In May of 2015-roughly 22 months after Guenther was fired, 20 months after he filed his charge, and 12 months after he passed away-the EEOC issued its right-to-sue letter, having found reasonable cause. Justin Guenther, special administrator of Guenther's estate, filed suit under Title I of the ADA, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12111, et seq., and the Arkansas Civil Rights Act, Ark. Code Ann. §§ 16-123-101, et seq. Griffin Construction filed its answer and then moved to dismiss the action, contending the claims did not survive Guenther's death. The district court adopted the Arkansas tort survival statute as the federal rule of decision, agreed that Guenther's ADA claim abated at his death, and entered judgment for Griffin Construction on the pleadings.[1] See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). We reverse.


         Whether a complaint states a cause of action is a question of law we review on appeal de novo. See Minch Family LLLP v. Buffalo-Red River Watershed Dist., 628 F.3d 960, 965 (8th Cir. 2010). We assume all well-pleaded factual allegations are true, draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-movant, and affirm dismissal under Rule 12(c) only if the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See id. Under normal circumstances the facts as alleged here would state a plausible claim under the ADA. However, Guenther, the would-be plaintiff, died before he could file suit. The determinative issue at this stage becomes whether the ADA claim for compensatory damages survived Guenther's death.[2]

         Whether a federal claim survives is a question of federal law. See Carlson v. Green, 446 U.S. 14, 23 (1980). Congress could have supplied the answer by explicitly instructing courts on how to resolve situations like this one. It did not. The ADA is silent on the claim-survival issue, and "[t]here is no general survival statute for federal-question cases." 7C Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Mary Kay Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1954. Nor does 42 U.S.C. § 1988(a)-which directs courts to fill gaps in certain federal actions with state law when state law is not "inconsistent" with federal law-apply to the ADA.[3] Therefore the question of survival "is governed by federal common law when, as here, there is no expression of contrary intent" from Congress. Smith v. Dep't of Human Servs., 876 F.2d 832, 834 (10th Cir. 1989).

         "The more difficult task, to which we turn, is giving content to this federal rule." United States v. Kimbell Foods, Inc., 440 U.S. 715, 727 (1979) (emphasis added). Sometimes it is best to incorporate state law, while other times a uniform rule is warranted. Compare Gaona v. Town & Country Credit, 324 F.3d 1050, 1056 (8th Cir. 2003) (applying a state statute of limitations to the ADA), with Clackamas Gastroenterology Assocs., P. C. v. Wells, 538 U.S. 440, 448-50 (2003) (creating a uniform definition of "employee" for the ADA). Whether to adopt state law or create a uniform federal rule "is a matter of judicial policy 'dependent upon a variety of considerations always relevant to the nature of the specific governmental interests and to the effects upon them of applying state law.'" Kimbell Foods, Inc., 440 U.S. at 728 (quoting United States v. Standard Oil Co. of Cal., 332 U.S. 301, 310 (1947)). Contrary to the district court's opinion, we are convinced the relevant considerations weigh in favor of a uniform rule of survivability.

          First, state law should not be incorporated where doing so would "'frustrate specific objectives of the federal programs.'"[4] Kamen v. Kemper Fin. Servs., Inc., 500 U.S. 90, 98 (1991) (quoting Kimbell Foods, Inc., 440 U.S. at 728). "[F]ederal courts must be ever vigilant to insure that application of state law poses 'no significant threat to any identifiable federal policy or interest.'" Burks v. Lasker, 441 U.S. 471, 479 (1979) (quoting Wallis v. Pan Am. Petroleum Corp., 384 U.S. 63, 68 (1966)).

         So what did Congress say? Congress declared its interest in passing the ADA was to "provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate" with "clear, strong, consistent, [and] enforceable standards" to address the "serious and pervasive social problem" of disability-based discrimination on a case-by-case basis. 42 U.S.C. § 12101(a)(2), (b)(1)-(2) (emphasis added); see Clackamas, 538 U.S. at 446 & n.6 (considering broad application of the ADA's ...

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