The Seventh Circuit, per Judge Richard Posner, reminds the lower courts once again that private-sector employees do not have an administrative "exhaustion" requirement under Title VII, and that disputed issues of fact about limitations periods belong to a jury, not the judge.
Bahri Begolli v. Home Depot, U.S.A., No. 12-1875 (7th Cir. Oct. 29, 2012): Although courts and practitioners often speak of private-sector employees having to comply with an "exhaustion" requirement through the EEOC (and state and local civil rights agencies) by filing a timely charge, this has never been truly accurate. The employee with a Title VII claim is obliged to file a charge within 180 or 300 days, but there is no requirement that the agency complete an investigation before the employee commences a federal civil action. (Federal-sector employees, by contrast, have true "exhaustion" requirements under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16.) The 180/300 day period is a limitations period, only.
In this case, which alleged national-origin discrimination, there was a dispute about the date when the plaintiff was informed that Home Depot was not going to hire him. The defendant claimed that it was August 27, 2007, which would have made his charge filed too late by just four days. The plaintiff denied receiving a call on that date. Rather than turn this dispute over to a jury, the district court judge - adopting a procedure borrowed from the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) - convened a testimonial hearing on the timing issue and decided it herself, holding that the employer was right, and granting judgment to the defendant.
The Seventh Circuit, in a crisp six-page opinion, reverses. The panel observes that the 180/300 day period prescribed by Title VII is not an "exhaustion" requirement:
"Title VII, in contrast [to the PLRA], does not require exhaustion. It states that 'a charge . . . shall be filed . . . within three hundred days after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred,' 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1), but not that an administrative proceeding shall have been conducted before the employee can file suit. [Citations omitted.] The fixing of a filing deadline is what a statute of limitations does; requiring exhaustion of administrative remedies requires more. The filing deadline is just a defense in a Title VII suit, and there is no reason to distinguish it from other defenses and therefore exclude it from the jury trial."
Accordingly, the panel regards the date when the Title VII claim accrued as simply another issue for the jury, rather than a dispute over which forum should hear the claim:
"The distinction is not a technical one. It reflects the different goals of the Prison Litigation Reform Act and Title VII. The former is designed to keep prisoner grievances in prisons and out of courts, on the ory that the primary responsibility for prison regulation should lie with prison officials rather than with federal judges. Title VII, in contrast, is designed to provide a federal judicial forum, complete with jury if desired, for persons complaining about employment discrimination."