Judge Toby Heytens, nominated by President Biden to the Fourth Circuit, wrote a unanimous decision that reversed a district court’s dismissal of an indigent person’s race discrimination claim against a former employer. The February 2023 ruling was in Allen v Atlas Box & Crating Co.
What is the case about and why was it thrown out?
Andrew Allen contends that he was illegally fired from his job by Atlas Box & Crating Co. because of his race. The alleged misconduct also included racial harassment and a common racial slur repeatedly “directed at” him by a supervisor. Allen filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC, which issued him a letter granting him a right to sue in federal court within ninety days .
Acting on his own without a lawyer, Allen filed a timely complaint in federal district court, along with a motion to be excused from prepayment of fees and costs. After some delay, the court denied the motion and gave Allen additional time to raise money to pay the fees, which he did. The corporation later claimed, however, that Allen’s lawsuit should be summarily dismissed because the court should not consider the complaint actually filed until after Allen paid the filing fees, which occurred after the deadline for filing a complaint.
The district court accepted the employer’s argument. It ruled that even though Allen had filed a complaint well within the time limit, he had not formally “filed” it until paying the filing fee, which occurred after the filing deadline as permitted by the court. The lower court thus dismissed the complaint. Allen found an attorney to represent him on appeal.
What did Judge Heytens decide and why is it important?
Judge Heytens wrote a 3-0 decision that reversed the district court and allowed Allen’s discrimination case to proceed. Heytens explained that according to the federal court rules, filing a complaint “requires nothing more than delivery of the document to a court officer authorized to receive it,” which Allen did on time. While a court can and does require payment of filing fees unless waived, he went on, “nothing” in the rules or the law allows a court to “refuse” a complaint for formal filing “because it is not accompanied by the filing fee.” Instead, Heytens concluded, it would be “illogical and impractical” to accept the corporation’s argument and throw out Allen’s complaint.
Judge Heytens’ opinion thus overturned the lower court and reinstated Allen’s job discrimination complaint. The court made clear that a person like Allen has “commenced” a lawsuit when he “delivers a complaint” to the court, “regardless” of whether the filing fee is paid or waived then or later.
In addition to ensuring that Andrew Allen’s discrimination complaint will go forward, Judge Heytens’ decision will help future litigants avoid the trap of losing their right to sue because they seek a waiver of filing fees because of their economic circumstances. The ruling is particularly important for poor people who seek to vindicate their rights in federal court. The decision provides another illustration of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded judicial nominees like Judge Heytens by President Biden.