Six-Year Limitations Period Doesn't Apply In Federal Workers' Title VII Suit, Court Rules

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By Kevin McGowan

Jan. 6 — A federal district court erred by applying a generic six-year statute of limitations for lawsuits against the U.S. government to dismiss a race discrimination suit by two Commerce Department employees under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act when the employees met all of Title VII's applicable deadlines, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled Jan. 6.

On a matter of first impression for the circuit, the court said the six-year period set out in 28 U.S.C. § 2401(a) and Title VII's more elastic limitations period, which provides federal employees may sue within 90 days of final agency action on their discrimination claims, are in “irreconcilable conflict.”

Given Congress's expressed preference for administrative resolution of federal employees' bias complaints and U.S. Supreme Court precedent holding Title VII is federal workers' exclusive remedy for discrimination, the court said it must apply the more specific Title VII limitations period, regardless of how long an administrative process might take.

Forcing federal employees who comply with Title VII's deadlines to sue within six years or lose their right to sue, regardless of the administrative status of their claims, would violate Congress's preference for administrative resolution and put federal claimants at a disadvantage not intended by Title VII, the court said.

No ‘Outer Limit' for Title VII Suit

Under Title VII, federal employees alleging discrimination must file a complaint with their agency or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If their agency or the EEOC hasn't acted within 180 days of the complaint, the employee may sue in federal court.

But the employee also can continue the administrative process. Under those circumstances, Title VII provides that after the EEOC or employing agency takes final action on the discrimination claim, the employee may sue within 90 days in federal district court, which undertakes de novo review of the bias claim.

“Contrary to the fixed six-year time limit of § 2401(a), Congress did not establish a time limit after which judicial relief would cease to be available due to the passage of time while employees pursued administrative remedies, again underscoring Congress's preferred method of resolving federal employment discrimination complaints,” Judge Judith W. Rogers wrote.

Since Congress has determined the “appropriate time limits” within which a federal employee may file a civil suit, “it would be, given the context, structure and purpose of Title VII, fundamentally inconsistent with the statutory scheme to impose an artificial six-year time limit,” the court said.

Congress understood “lengthy delays” could be part of the administrative process, so Title VII gives federal employees an option to proceed to federal court 180 days after they file a discrimination complaint with their agency, the court said.

“But for employees who wished to remain on the administrative path, Congress set no outer time limit, choosing instead to provide a ninety-day window following final agency action in which they could file suit,” Rogers wrote. “Setting an outer time limit would reorder the incentives that encourage administrative resolution by federal employees, where the administrative process reaches six-and-a-half years, to elect either to continue to pursue administrative relief or to abandon the administrative process without result in order to file a timely civil action.”

Nothing in Title VII indicates Congress meant to force that choice on federal employees with discrimination claims, the court said.

“Succinctly put, Congress's goal of resolving employment discrimination disputes through the administrative process ‘is better met by enacting a limitations period for filing a court action that runs from the end of the administrative process,' rather than from the start or middle of it,” the court said.

Timing Tied to Agency Action

The Commerce Department argued that by not expressly exempting Title VII from Section 2401(a)'s broad reach, Congress was alerting federal employees with bias claims that once they had pursued the administrative process for 6 1/2 years, they had effectively chosen the administrative tribunal as their exclusive forum.

The employee still can seek relief for discrimination in the administrative realm, but loses the “unfettered right to relitigate her claim” in federal district court, Commerce contended. That “elegant scheme” balances the congressional concern for finality expressed in statutes of limitations against the “national interest” in eradicating discrimination within the federal workforce, Commerce argued.

But the court said nothing indicates Congress meant the limitations period in Section 2401(a)—which originally was part of the Tucker Act and provides that “every civil action” against the U.S. is “barred” unless filed within six years of accrual of the cause of action—to apply to Title VII federal employee claims.

“Even assuming the Department's interpretation of how the two statutory time limits interact is not internally illogical, it is not the scheme adopted by Congress,” the court said.

The department's interpretation of the competing time limits “ignores that Title VII has no ‘jurisdictional outer limit' because Congress chose not to impose one given its ‘hope that recourse to the private lawsuit would be the exception and not the rule,' ” the court said, citing Martini v. Federal National Mortgage Ass'n, 178 F.3d 1336, 80 FEP Cases 1 (D.C. Cir. 1999).

“Congress tied the timing of any lawsuit to the progress of administrative resolution rather than to the amount of time that had elapsed in the administrative process since the employee filed an initial charge,” Rogers wrote. “There is nothing strange, or inelegant, about Congress authorizing relief that is not tied to a jurisdictional statute of limitations; private-sector Title VII plaintiffs do not face a jurisdictional limitations period for filing a civil action, and the limitations period in the [Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act] and the Clayton Act, for example, are also non-jurisdictional. [The Commerce employees] note that in various statutory settings, ‘pegging statutes of limitations to final agency action is commonplace.' ”

The district court therefore erred in applying Section 2401(a)'s six-year limitations period to dismiss Janet Howard's and Joyce Megginson's race discrimination suit, which was filed Oct. 5, 2005, just five days after an administrative law judge had dismissed their administrative complaint (Howard v. Blank, 891 F. Supp. 2d 95 (D.D.C. 2012).

That Howard's and Megginson's discrimination claims had accrued more than six years before they sued is immaterial, given that they complied with all of Title VII's deadlines for filing and pursuing administrative claims and sued within the 90-day limit, the appeals court said.

The district court on remand must resume consideration of the plaintiffs' second amended complaint, the D.C. Circuit ruled.

Judges Janice Rogers Brown and Harry T. Edwards joined in the decision.

Elizabeth C. Bullock, David W. DeBruin, Matthew S. Hellman and Matthew S. McKenzie of Jenner & Block in Washington, as court-appointed amicus, represented the employees on appeal. Brian P. Hudak, Ronald C. Machen Jr. and R. Craig Lawrence of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington represented the Department of Commerce.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kevin 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/Janet_Howard_et_al_v_Penny_Pritzker_Docket_No_1205370_DC_Cir_Nov_.