A recent Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (which oversees Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan) decision revived a pro se plaintiff’s Title VII race discrimination claim against an employer finding that the filing of the charge was timely as the appropriate limitation time period to present a claim was 300 days from the date of the plaintiff’s termination. The court’s ruling arose from a review of the district court’s decision granting the employer’s motion to dismiss, holding that the plaintiff’s suit was untimely because he filed his charge outside the 180-day time frame generally required for filing with the EEOC. Finding in favor of the plaintiff, even though the plaintiff failed to raise the appropriate argument before the district court, the court found the claim was undeniably timely pursuant to relevant U.S. Supreme Court case law and the procedures followed by the EEOC.
The plaintiff was previously employed as a security officer at a shipping center operated by the employer. One of his duties including watching an x-ray monitor to detect weapons in packages about to be loaded on the employer’s aircraft. On August 4, 2017, the plaintiff failed to detect a weapon. Twelve days later, the shipping company terminated his employment, allegedly because he failed to detect that weapon. According to the plaintiff, who is black, the consequences for failing to detect a weapon were harsher for him than they were for certain white officers.
Two hundred and fifty-two (252) days after his termination, the plaintiff filed a Title VII race discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against the employer. Subsequently, the EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter and the plaintiff, acting pro se (meaning that he was representing himself without an attorney), sued the employer seeking $250,000 in lost earnings and benefits as well as reemployment. Shortly thereafter, the employer moved to dismiss the claim arguing that it was untimely.
The district court granted the employer’s motion to dismiss, holding that the claim was untimely because the charge was filed outside the 180-day time frame generally required for filing with the EEOC under the Civil Rights Act. The plaintiff appealed the decision.
Appellate court’s decision
On appeal, the court extensively analyzed the appropriate procedure for filing a discrimination charge and relevant time restraints. Generally, Title VII requires plaintiffs to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act. However, the limitations period expands to 300 days when the plaintiff is deemed to have initially instituted proceedings with an appropriate agency that possess enough authority to grant or seek relief from such practice. These agencies are known as “fair employment practices agencies” (FEPAs), and the Supreme Court has held that the EEOC may institute proceedings with a FEPA on behalf of an employee.
The EEOC has executed agreements, referred to as “work-sharing agreements,” with most FEPAs. These work-sharing agreements typically provide that the state or local agency will process certain categories of charges and that the EEOC will process others, with the state or local agency waiving the deferral period in the later instance. For example, in this case the EEOC and the Tennessee Human Rights Commission (THRC) have such an agreement. The agreement provides that “[t]he EEOC … will process all Title VII … charges that [it] originally receives,” and “waives its right of exclusive jurisdiction to initially process such charges for a period of 60 days for the purpose of allowing the EEOC to proceed immediately with the processing of such charges before the 61st day.”
Here, the plaintiff acknowledged that he neither filed his charge with the EEOC within 180 days of his termination, nor submitted his charge directly to the THRC. However, as noted by the court on appeal, pursuant to the work-sharing agreement between the EEOC and the THRC, the submission of his charge to the EEOC 252 days after his termination caused three things to automatically and simultaneously occur: (1) the EEOC, acting as THRC’s agent, instituted a THRC proceeding; (2) the THRC terminated that proceeding pursuant to its waiver; and (3) the EEOC instituted its own proceeding. Thus, the court found the 300-day limitations period applied rendering the plaintiff’s claim timely.
The Court of Appeals excused the plaintiff from not raising this argument because he was acting pro-se and the resolution of the issue was “beyond any doubt” in light of the relevant case law. Further, other circuits have unanimously held that similar work-sharing agreements between the EEOC and FEPAs are self-executing, permitting the EEOC to commence proceedings when the charge is filed. The court further noted that its holding that the work-sharing agreement is self-executing was also consistent with EEOC regulations.
As shown by this decision, even if the plaintiff fails to raise the argument, the court will not hesitate to present the defense in his place when a plaintiff is representing himself. Employers must still take seriously a lawsuit brought by a pro se plaintiff even though they are not represented by a lawyer. Further, this decision highlights the length of time a terminated employee has to bring a claim against a former employer. Employers should have policies in place to help ensure that relevant documents and information are regularly preserved and maintained for a sufficient period of time for not only the EEOC limitations period but also other applicable statutes of limitations. Potentially valuable evidence in a future case which has been lost or destroyed, can substantially adversely affect an employer’s case and ability to defend itself.
R. Eddie Wayland is a partner with the law firm of King & Ballow. You may reach Mr. Wayland at (615) 726-5430 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. The foregoing materials, discussion and comments have been abridged from laws, court decisions, and administrative rulings and should not be construed as legal advice on specific situations or subjects.