Supreme Court Decides Statute of Limitations Issue in Second Age Discrimination this Term

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) prohibits workplace discrimination based on age against employees and job applicants who are 40 years of age or older.

Age discrimination cases before the Supreme Court this term abound. The Court recently issued another opinion in an age discrimination case; the second one in less than one week. In Federal Express v. Holwecki the Supreme Court decided what constitutes a “Charge of Discrimination” submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

In Federal Express v. Holwecki, the plaintiff-employees filled out an intake questionnaire in which they alleged age discrimination and filed it with the EEOC. Attached to the questionnaire was an affidavit further detailing the discrimination and stating: “Please force Federal Express to end their age discrimination plan.” The plaintiff-employees, however, did not fill out the official Charge of Discrimination documentation.

A Charge must be filed with EEOC within 180 days from the date of the alleged violation. As an aside, the 180-day filing deadline is extended to 300 days if the charge also is covered by a state or local anti-discrimination law, which is the case in Massachusetts.

After filing suit, the Federal District Court in Manhattan dismissed the suit on the basis that the statute of limitations had expired. In doing so, the district court took a hyper-technical approach, concluding that the questionnaire and affidavit were insufficient to constitute an official Charge. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision, stating that the plaintiff-employees’ documentation was the equivalent of an official Charge of Discrimination. The Supreme Court agreed:

Documents filed by an employee with the EEOC should be construed, to the extent consistent with permissible rules of interpretation, to protect the employee’s rights and statutory remedies. Construing ambiguities against the drafter may be the more efficient rule to encourage precise expression in other contexts; here, however, the rule would undermine the remedial scheme Congress adopted. It would encourage individuals to avoid filing errors by retaining counsel, increasing both the cost and likelihood of litigation.
For more about the Supreme Court’s ruling in Federal Express v. Holwecki, check out the New York Times article entitled, Supreme Court Alters Tone in Discrimination Case.