Court: EEOC Can't Breach Statute of Limitations

In an environment where it seems government agencies are cracking down on employers more frequently, a recent federal district court decision shows that sometimes even the enforcers cross the line.

Thursday, November 29, 2012
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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington has pursued pattern-and-practice claims in recent years, looking beyond single claims to situations that could indicate systemic issues in a company. But in doing so, the Commission can't base a pattern and practice suit or other claim on a case that violates the law's requirement for timeliness, according to an Oct. 18 decision from a New Jersey federal district court judge.

"This court held government to the same timeliness rules applicable to a private party, which is refreshing," says Thomas Lenz, who heads the traditional labor law department at Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo in Cerritos, California.

"It is a rare example of government officials being held to the same timeliness rules to which private parties are held. This is particularly so as employers continue to be plagued by aggressive enforcement in a difficult economy," he says.  

In the lawsuit, the EEOC alleged that Princeton Healthcare System in New Jersey engaged in employment practices that violated the Americans with Disability Act. The case lumped together three individual claims -- the earliest of which arose in 2006 -- though the original suit stemmed from claims in 2007 and 2008.

The New Jersey medical facility filed a motion asking that the two older claims be dismissed because the alleged actions occurred beyond the 300-day statute of limitations for ADA violations. The EEOC said it should be exempt from timeliness guidelines on the basis of a "continuing violation" doctrine -- that older cases should be actionable as part of what it claimed were systematic violations. The judge disagreed and dismissed the two older claims.

Attorney Gerald A. Golden, who has advised employers on compliance issues for more than 35 years, says HR leaders should take note of the recent decision.

"[I]t reinforces the point that the EEOC must abide by the time limits for pursuing claims just as individuals must," says Golden, a partner at Chicago-based Neal Gerber & Eisenberg's Labor and Employment group. "The first step HR executives should take when they receive notice of a discrimination claim is to determine if it has been filed timely. If not, the individual or the EEOC may not be able to proceed."

The Commission's heightened focus on pattern-and-practice cases also should prompt HR executives to analyze any single discrimination claims immediately to see whether the allegations could be viewed as systemic, says Keith J. Gutstein, an attorney who concentrates on employment law at Kaufman Dolowich Voluck & Gonzo in Woodbury, N.Y.

"Though the holding in the decision limits the ability of the EEOC to widen the size of lawsuits it chooses to commence, the case reaffirms the fact that the EEOC is looking to pursue cases on behalf of multiple claimants," Gutstein says. "As such, an HR professional should contact labor counsel promptly if a charge of discrimination is filed in order to help evaluate the case early and determine whether the matter has the potential to expand into a pattern-and-practice action."

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While this decision could be considered a relief, Gutstein says, other district courts have ruled otherwise on the EEOC's requirement to follow the statute of limitations."Notwithstanding the differences between the Courts, this decision certainly provides a weapon to employers who are faced with pattern-or-practice lawsuits by the EEOC," he says. "They can now cite to this decision as support for the position that certain claims should be dismissed because they are outside the statute of limitations period."

The case also serves as a reminder that company officials need to be both proactive about their policies, procedures and training to avoid pattern-and-practice discrimination and careful when individual allegations arise, says Lenz, who also has practiced law with the National Labor Relations Board.

"Systemic cases, affecting multiple people, are in government's view a bigger bang for the taxpayer dollar to protect employees from widely-occurring unlawful acts," he says.

"This means employers have to look at the details of each employee's situation very carefully to ensure it is properly handled. Employers must also look at the bigger picture, from 30,000 feet, to ensure that protected classifications do not, on a broader group-wide and statistical basis, suffer discrimination and harassment in the workplace."

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