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Timely EEOC Charge Doesn't Toll Deadline For Filing State Tort Claims, Court Rules

Thursday, March 6, 2014

By Kevin P. McGowan  

March 5 --A female employee's filing of a sex discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does not toll the one-year limitations period on her New York state law tort claims arising from the same facts as her discrimination claim, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled March 5 ( 2014 BL 59450, 2d Cir., No. 13-796, 3/5/14).

Ruling on an issue of first impression for the circuit, the court said as a matter of federal law, an individual's filing of EEOC charges under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights does not toll, or suspend, the running of the limitations period on state law tort claims, even if those claims arise from the same factual circumstances as the federal discrimination claim.

Patricia Castagna, a former employee of Majestic Kitchens Inc. in Mamaroneck, N.Y., had appealed a district court's dismissal of her state law claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery against Majestic and company owner Michael Luceno, who Castagna alleged had verbally and physically abused her, forcing her to quit her job in July 2008.

Castagna filed her EEOC sex discrimination charge about four months after her resignation, alleging sexual harassment and constructive discharge. But she did not receive an EEOC right-to-sue letter until August 2009, and she sued under Title VII and state law in November 2009, about 16 months after she left Majestic.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York therefore dismissed her state law claims as untimely under New York's one-year statute of limitations.

Two Circuits Agree

On appeal, Castagna argued if an EEOC charge filing does not toll state law tort claims based on the same facts, a claimant would have to sue in state court before the EEOC completes its administrative process, resulting in judicial inefficiency and undermining the Title VII goal of “giving the EEOC the opportunity to facilitate dispute resolution” prior to litigation.

“In short, Castagna's position is that judicial efficiency mandates tolling of the relevant statutes of limitations for state tort claims once a charge of discrimination is filed with the EEOC,” Judge Sidney H. Stein wrote for the Second Circuit.

“The Seventh and Ninth Circuits--the only two federal courts of appeals that appear to have considered the issue--have rejected similar arguments regarding tolling of state tort claims,” Stein wrote. “So, too, have the 'vast majority' of district court decisions in this circuit.”

The court cited the decisions in Juarez v. Ameritech Mobile Communications, Inc., 957 F.2d 317, 58 FEP Cases 152 (7th Cir. 1992), and Arnold v. United States, 816 F.2d 1306, 43 FEP Cases 1256 (9th Cir. 1987).

The Second Circuit said those two rulings are supported by Johnson v. Railway Express Agency, Inc., 421 U.S. 454, 10 FEP Cases 817 (1975), in which the U.S. Supreme Court said filing of an EEOC charge did not toll the limitations period on a discrimination claim based on the same facts under the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (42 U.S.C. § 1981).

The Supreme Court's reasoning in Johnson suggests the same result would apply to the tolling of state law tort claims, the Second Circuit said.

Supreme Court Precedent on Point

Castagna said Johnson is distinguishable because the Supreme Court was dealing with two exclusively federal causes of action while she would have to bring a separate state court action to preserve her tort claims prior to bringing a federal court action under Title VII.

But Castagna's “argument that her case differs in kind from Johnson's is unavailing,” the Second Circuit said.


Ruling on an issue of first impression, the Second Circuit said an individual's filing of EEOC charges under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights does not toll, or suspend, the running of the limitations period on state law tort claims, even if those claims arise from the same factual circumstances as the federal discrimination claim.  

 


Although EEOC proceedings “often are beneficial” in resolving workplace disputes, the Supreme Court in Johnson recognized that Congress in Title VII “did not intend for those proceedings to delay independent avenues of redress,” the appeals court said.

A plaintiff such as Castagna facing the pressure of a state law statute of limitations expiring can sue under state law but request the court stay proceedings until the EEOC completes its processing of the related discrimination charge, the court said.

“Although such a stay procedure is 'perhaps not a highly satisfactory' response to Castagna's plight, 'the fundamental answer to [her] argument lies in the fact' that she always had 'an unfettered right' to pursue her tort claims,” the court said. “Castagna does not urge that she could not have brought those claims within the applicable statute of limitations. She simply failed to do so.”

Title VII No Bar to State Remedies

The court added that “contrary to Castagna's impermissibly narrow reading of Johnson,” the Supreme Court's “reasoning against tolling encompassed more” than just Section 1981 or other federal statutes.

Instead, the court in Johnson said that under Title VII, an aggrieved individual “is not deprived of other remedies” and is “not limited to Title VII in his search for relief.” The Johnson decision said Title VII's legislative history “manifests a congressional intent to allow an individual to pursue independently his rights under both Title VII and other applicable state and federal remedies.”

“In short, there is no basis for concluding that Congress intended that a civil rights claimant should be entitled to delay filing any state tort claims during the EEOC's consideration of a charge of discrimination,” the Second Circuit said. “We therefore join the Seventh and Ninth Circuits in holding as a matter of federal law that filing an EEOC charge does not toll the time for filing state tort claims, including those that arise out of the same nucleus of facts alleged in the charge of discrimination filed with the EEOC.”

Judges Debra Ann Livingston and Raymond J. Lohier joined in the decision.

Discrimination Claims Revived

In a separate summary order, the same Second Circuit panel ruled the district court erred by granting Majestic Kitchens and Luceno summary judgment on Castagna's hostile work environment and constructive discharge claims under Title VII and the New York State Human Rights Law.

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Castagna, the evidence indicates Luceno directed physical threats to three female employees, including Castagna, but he never physically threatened any male employee, the court said.

The record also is “replete with evidence that Luceno's most extreme outbursts were directed at women,” the court said.

“A reasonable jury would be entitled to conclude that such comments--at least in conjunction with the evidence of physical threats--were either 'sufficiently severe or sufficiently pervasive' to have altered Castagna's working conditions,” the court said. “Given the gender-explicit content of several of these outbursts, including but not limited to referring to other women as 'bitches,' the district court erred in concluding that no reasonable jury could find that Castagna was subjected to a hostile work environment because of her sex.”

The district court had dismissed Castagna's constructive discharge claim, reasoning that if she could not prove hostile environment, she cannot meet the more demanding standard of a workplace so intolerable a reasonable person would feel forced to resign.

“In light of our disposition regarding Castagna's hostile work environment claims, we vacate the dismissal of Castagna's constructive discharge claims and remand for the district court to reconsider those claims in the first instance,” the Second Circuit said.

E. Christopher Murray of Ruskin Moscou Faltischek PC in Uniondale, N.Y., represented Castagna. Costantino Fragale in Mamaroneck, N.Y., represented Majestic Kitchens Inc. and Luceno.

 

To contact the reporter on this story: Kevin P. McGowan in Washington at kmcgowan@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com


Text of the opinion is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/PATRICIA_CASTAGNA_NICK_SARRACCO_PlaintiffsAppellants__v__BILL_LUC/2 and the summary order is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/Castagna_v_Luceno_Docket_No_1300796_2d_Cir_Mar_06_2013_Court_Dock/3.

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