- A worker who missed the statutory cut-off date for filing a discrimination charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission isn’t entitled to have the deadline suspended, or “equitably tolled,” the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held Sept. 14 (Dobbs v. Martin Marietta Materials, Inc., No. 21-13533 (11th Cir. Sept. 14, 2022)).
- The worker was employed at a Martin Marietta quarry in Georgia. Following a government settlement requiring Martin Marietta to sell the quarry to a competitor, it fired the worker, according to court documents. He claimed it refused to rehire him at another plant and forced him to accept a demotion to work for the competitor because of his age. He filed a charge with the EEOC but missed the 180-day statute of limitations by two weeks.
- A federal district court found he was time-barred from bringing an Age Discrimination in Employment Act lawsuit due to the missed deadline. It granted summary judgment to Martin Marietta, and the 11th Circuit affirmed. The clock started running on the day the worker was notified he was going to be terminated and wasn’t eligible for rehire, not when he later realized he would lose his pension if he accepted a transfer to the competitor, the 11th Circuit said. The worker failed to show there were extraordinary circumstances warranting tolling the deadline, the panel held.
Federal employment nondiscrimination laws require individuals in the private sector to file charges with the EEOC before pursuing a lawsuit, and they have a limited time to do so, EEOC guidance explains.
In general, the charge must be filed within 180 calendar days from the day the discrimination took place, the guidance says. In age discrimination cases, the filing deadline can be extended to 300 days only if there is a state law prohibiting age discrimination in employment and a state agency enforcing the law.
The clock starts when the charging party has “unequivocal notice of the adverse action” and that a discriminatory act has occurred, the 11th Circuit explained in this case. For the Georgia worker, the limitations period began on the date he was notified of his termination and learned that Martin Marietta would not transfer him to, or rehire him for, another position but would retain a younger employee, the court explained.
The worker argued that the doctrine of equitable tolling or equitable estoppel should apply. The doctrine allows a court to suspend or toll the statutory deadline so a tardy plaintiff isn’t barred from pursuing their lawsuit, according to an EEOC compliance manual.
The doctrine is consistent with the principle that “a wrongdoer should not be able to benefit from his own wrong” and is often raised by plaintiffs who miss a statutory deadline, Farrell Fritz law firm explained in a blog post. The doctrine is generally applied “where the defendant’s own intentional misconduct prevented the plaintiff from timely filing suit,” the blog states.
The 11th Circuit applies equitable tolling only in extraordinary circumstances, such as where a defendant intentionally misrepresents material facts to prevent the plaintiff from acting in a timely manner, the court explained. Here, however, the worker failed to show there were extraordinary circumstances to justify his late filing, the 11th Circuit held.
By contrast, extending the deadline would be proper where an employer indicates the employee is being terminated due to a reduction in force and that it would reconsider hiring the employee but fails to disclose the employee is being replaced with a younger person at a lower salary, the EEOC compliance manual notes.