Deadline to file discrimination claim
How late may a discrimination complaint be filed?
The Second District Court of Appeal recently decided whether an employee’s case was timely filed even though it was too late under a California statute. In Mitchell v. Cal. Dep’t of Pub. Health (July 27, 2016, No. B265769) 2016 Cal. App. LEXIS 616, the appellate court considered whether “equitable tolling” saved the case.
In this case, Mr. Mitchell resigned from the Department of Public Health in 2011 after complaining to his employer that he was being discriminated against because of his race. As required by law, before filing in court Mr. Mitchell filed a complaint with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which investigates violations of federal law. The EEOC lodged a copy of the complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), which covers state law. On September 9, 2011, DFEH issued a “right-to-sue notice” to pursue state law claims and deferred investigation of the charges to EEOC. The notice included the statement that a “one-year period [to file a case in court] will be tolled during the pendency of the EEOC’s investigation of your complaint.”
On September 30, 2013, EEOC informed Mr. Mitchell there was “reasonable cause” to believe he had suffered racial discrimination. On March 21, 2014, after the EEOC concluded its investigation, Mr. Mitchell received his federal right-to-sue letter. His deadline to file federal law claims was June 19, 2014.
Mr. Mitchell filed in court under state law (Fair Employment and Housing Act) for racial discrimination on July 8, 2014. This was 17 days beyond the 90-day federal right-to-sue period, but within one year from March 21, 2014.
The trial court dismissed his case on “statute of limitations” grounds, i.e., filing his court complaint too late. On appeal, Mr. Mitchell sought to revive his case by asserting that the one-year period to file state law claims was equitably tolled during the period of the EEOC investigation.
The court of appeal noted that while an employee normally must file state law claims within one year of the DFEH’s right-to-sue notice, courts had created an equitable tolling exception. This exception requires a showing of timely notice, lack of prejudice to the employer, and reasonable and good faith conduct on the part of the employee.
The appellate court then turned to a statutory exception to the one-year deadline. Under this law, if an employee files a complaint with the EEOC and DFEH at the same time and the DFEH defers to an EEOC investigation, the employee may file state law claims in court within 90 days of when the EEOC investigation concludes. Although Mr. Mitchell could not rely on this statute, he could turn to equitable tolling.
The Mitchell court pointed to the right-to-sue notice by DFEH that referred to the one-year statute of limitations being tolled during the EEOC’s investigation. The court concluded that a warning in the notice to seek legal advice to determine the deadline to file in court was insufficient to eliminate equitable tolling.
Another factor supporting equitable tolling was the requirement that courts liberally interpret the statute of limitations for Fair Employment and Housing Act claims so as to promote the resolution of potentially meritorious claims on the merits. In this case, the EEOC’s finding of “reasonable cause” was significant, particularly in light of a lack of prejudice to the employer, which had timely notice of the claims through the EEOC proceedings. Finally, the court of appeal determined that Mr. Mitchell acted in reasonable and good faith reliance upon the DFEH’s statement that the one-year statute of limitations was tolled until the EEOC investigation concluded.