Statute of limitations — or, in plain English, the deadline to file a lawsuit — are sometimes able to be used by employers when employees and their counsel file their employment law claims late.
But a recent federal court decision in Connecticut had to look at a fairly novel issue: Did the CHRO mislead the employee’s attorney regarding the deadline to file a lawsuit that would excuse the deadline?
Ultimately, the court concluded that even if there was some ambiguity in what the state agency said, it did not justify a tolling of the statute of limitations.
The case, Hannah v. Wal-Mart Stores, can be downloaded here.
In the case, the CHRO issued a release of jurisdiction of the state law discrimination claims on April 10, 2012, which would obligate the employee to bring her claim to court by July 12, 2012. (Here she did not file the state law claims until September 21, 2012, shortly after finally receiving a Right to Sue letter from the EEOC releasing the federal claims).
The court was asked whether misleading information from a third-party, such as the CHRO, could justify tolling of those state law claims.
The court said, however, that it was far from clear that there was even misleading information.
On May 25, 2012, the plaintiffs’ counsel wrote to the CHRO and stated “I have not gotten the right to sue back from the EEOC yet … Is it really necessary to get a release from them before filing, given that I never filed with them?”. The CHRO responded: “Yes, you need to get a Right to Sue from the EEOC”.
The court said that this CHRO response did not state that plaintiff could not bring the state law claims until hearing from the EEOC but only seemed a reference to the requirements to bring a federal claim. The state law claims are separate from the federal claims.
And yet, the court said that the e-mail could be viewed as ambiguous because it did not clarify that the plaintiff did not need to file the state and federal law claims at the same time.
Is that enough?
No, says the court, because “the fact remains that plaintiffs were represented by experienced counsel who should have been aware of the requirements for filing CFEPA claims.” Had this been a direct communication with the employee directly, that might have changed the court’s analysis.
But here, the statement from the CHRO to the employee’s counsel was not “sufficiently exceptional” to justify equitable tolling.
For employers, the case is a reminder that statute of limitations remain a powerful tool in the courts to limit claims of discrimination and that courts are willing to enforce those hard deadlines.
The employer in this case will still have to deal with the federal claims, but given the caps on some damages and the burden of proof requirements attached to the federal claims, the employer is no doubt pleased with the small victory.