Sixth Circuit Holds Employers cannot shorten time frame to file Title VII Discrimination Claims

Date: December 31, 2019

The federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that employers cannot reduce the time employees have to file a charge alleging Title VII employment discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The court found that contractual provisions and clauses that shorten Tile VII’s statute of limitations 300-day filing time frame are unenforceable.

Title VII prohibits discrimination by an employer on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, and requires employees to first file a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  The statutory deadline requires charges to be filed within 300 days of the alleged unlawful employment action, and cannot be changed by contract.  After a charge is filed, the EEOC can investigate the allegations, or take administrative remedial measures to resolve the issue (such as mediation).  Alternatively, the EEOC can grant the employee a right-to-sue letter, giving the employee a chance to sue the employer outright in court on their own.  If an employee receives this letter, they have ninety (90) days to file a lawsuit in federal court against their employer.

In the Sixth Circuit case, the Plaintiff’s employment contract contained a provision waiving her right to sue if she waited longer than six (6) months following a discrimination event to file a claim.  The lower federal district court initially adopted the employer’s deadline-shortening clause, but the Sixth Circuit reversed the decision on a case of first impression, stating “[W]here statutes that create rights and remedies contain their own limitation periods, the limitation period should be treated a substantive right . . . [a]nd this type of substantive right generally is not waivable in advance by employees.”  The court distinguished Title VII’s statute of limitations from those under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) or Section 1981 claims in that those statutes rely on general limitation periods created by other statutes.  Title VII’s statute of limitations to bring a discrimination claim is found within its own text.  The court also held that Title VII created a “uniform, nationwide system using ‘an integrated, multistep enforcement procedure.’”  The court rejected the employer’s policy of imposing contractual limitations on Title VII’s statutory remedies because it would disrupt Title VII’s uniform national procedures.

The Sixth Circuit oversees federal district courts in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee.  Nevertheless, this case provides context to federal questions and interpretations of federal authority, and provides a framework of considerations should you have a business practice that is any state.

VW Contributor: Ryan Coufal
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