The Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that a plaintiff's knowledge that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has terminated its investigation may be sufficient to cause the time for filing a court complaint to begin running within a reasonable time after a Right to Sue (RTS) notice has been mailed, regardless of when the RTS was actually received.
The Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that a plaintiff's knowledge that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has terminated its investigation may be sufficient to cause the time for filing a court complaint to begin running within a reasonable time after a Right to Sue (RTS) notice has been mailed, regardless of when the RTS was actually received. See Kerr v. McDonald's Corp. In Kerr, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the trial court's dismissal of the plaintiffs' class action age discrimination complaint as untimely where the complaint was filed nearly 120 days after the plaintiffs' RTS notices were mailed, although within 90 days of when the plaintiffs claimed they received the notices.
The two plaintiffs in Kerr filed charges with the EEOC claiming they were subjected to discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) when they were discharged. In December 2002, the plaintiffs spoke with EEOC representatives who indicated that the agency had concluded its investigation of their claims and would issue a RTS if the plaintiffs requested such a notice. Both plaintiffs requested RTS notices by telephone in late December 2002 and in writing on January 3, 2003. The plaintiffs claimed they did not receive RTS notices until sometime in February 2003. The court determined that, based on EEOC office procedures, the RTS notices could not have been mailed later than January 9, 2003, the date by which the plaintiffs' EEOC files were closed.
The court held that, although there was a dispute as to when the RTS notices were mailed and when the plaintiffs first received copies of them, there was no dispute that the plaintiffs knew as of January 3, 2003, that the EEOC had completed its investigation and would either issue determinations or, if requested, RTS notices. The court held that the date of receipt of the RTS notice is material to the summary judgment analysis only if there was no adequate notice prior to actual receipt. Here, however, there was evidence the plaintiffs had actual knowledge that the agency had terminated its investigation.
The court held that by failing to make any inquiry regarding their late or missing RTS notices, the plaintiffs failed to assume the minimal responsibility or to put forth the minimal effort necessary to resolve their claims in this case. Their failure to receive the letters was at least in part due to lack of diligence in following up their requests. Additionally, the court held that if it permitted the filing time frame to begin to run from when the plaintiffs claimed they received the RTS notices, the plaintiffs might have benefited from the kind of "manipulable open-ended time extension" that has caused the court concern in the past.
Employers' Bottom Line:
This decision is good news for employers because it demonstrates that the Eleventh Circuit recognizes that plaintiffs have some responsibility for preserving their right to sue and must take action when they have the requisite knowledge to do so. The case also demonstrates the importance of raising the defense that a complaint is untimely; doing so can, in the appropriate case, result in the dismissal of the lawsuit.
If you have any questions regarding this case or any other labor or employment-related issues, please contact the Ford & Harrison attorney with whom you usually work.