News from the Courts: On January 6, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued its decision in Howard, Megginson v. Pritzker, ___ F.3d ___, Nos. 12-5370, 12-5392. The Court rejected an attempt by the Department of Commerce (DOC) to impose a new statute of limitations on federal employees seeking to take their discrimination claims into federal district court.
Ms. Howard and Ms. Megginson were two former class plaintiffs in a failed attempt to raise a class action complaint against DOC for race discrimination under Title VII. After class certification was rejected by the EEOC in the administrative process, Ms. Howard and Ms. Megginson promptly attempted to refile their class action claims in federal district court; the claims were later converted by amendment into individual discrimination complaints. The district court dismissed the lawsuit as untimely, citing a novel theory applying a new ‘statute of limitations’ to the federal-sector discrimination complaints process.
Federal employees’ discrimination complaints fist go through the administrative process (which may take years, especially if a hearing is requested before an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (‘EEOC’) administrative judge, if class certification is requested, or if there are multiple appeals to the EEOC Office of Federal Operations). Once the case reaches a final decision in the administrative process, or once claims have been languishing without final decision at certain points in the process, the complainant has the opportunity to initiate a brand new lawsuit on the same claims in federal district court. The deadlines do not depend on how long has lapsed in the administrative process from the date of accrual of the claim–just how many days had passed from the final decision or from the period of ‘languishing’.
DOC’s novel argument here was that this right to initiate a new lawsuit in federal district court terminated after 6 years from the date of accrual of the claim, citing a catch-all statute of limitations provision (28 U.S.C. § 2401(a)). Since many federal-sector complaints–in particular, class action claims–often take more than 6 years to pass through the administrative complaints process, DOC’s argument would have required complainants to choose between fully litigating their administrative claims at the EEOC and risking losing their chance to sue anew in federal district court.
The Court of Appeals rejected DOC’s argument. The Court resolved the conflict between 28 U.S.C. § 2401(a) and Title VII by holding that the more specific deadline provisions of Title VII trumped the general deadline of 28 U.S.C. § 2401(a). The Court reasoned that the Title VII deadlines were part of a coherent statutory scheme for litigation of federal sector discrimination complaints, and that imposing a 6 year statute of limitations would run contrary to the Congressional policy favoring resolution of discrimination complaints in the administrative process. The Court accordingly reversed the dismissal of the lawsuit and remanded the case to the district court.