While private-sector employees need merely comply with certain administrative prerequisites in order to file a Title VII civil action (principally, the filing of a timely EEOC charge), federal sector employees must fully exhaust all administrative remedies before they commence suit. The distinction, as illustrated by today’s Eleventh Circuit decision, can pay important dividends. The panel here reverses judgment as a matter of law against a pro se applicant for a job at the U.S. DOT, and holds that the agency is barred from collaterally attacking an adverse finding on limitations in federal court that it lost and did not challenge before the EEOC.
Ramirez v. Secretary, U.S. Department of Transportation, No. 10-15086 (11th Cir. July 12, 2012): The pro se litigant in this case, Mr. Ramirez, sought to transfer his skills as a air traffic controller from the U.S. Army to the Federal Aviation Administration, under the federal Department of Transportation (“DOT”):
“After being honourably discharged from the Army in December 1985, Ramirez was classified as a disabled veteran and immediately hired by the United States Department of Defense (‘DOD’) as a civilian air traffic controller, a position that he still holds today. He was assigned to Fort Hood, where he worked in the same building as he had in the military. About ten years later, in 1996, he began to apply for air traffic controller positions within the Federal Aviation Administration (‘FAA’), an agency of the DOT. He wanted a position in Miami so that he could be closer to his family.”
In May of 2000, he applied for Miami-based positions under two different announcements (denominated “A215” and “VRA12,” the former with higher experience and skills requirements, the latter essentially entry-level). Repeatedly, he was informed that There was a hiring freeze, but some time in April or May of 2001, a colleague “who worked as a trainer at the Miami facility that There was no hiring freeze and, in fact, that new employees were being hired ‘all the time.'”
Ramirez eventually made a complaint to the DOT in 2003:
“In August 2003, about one year after he declined the position, he learned via Freedom of Information Act inquiry that several non-Hispanic air traffic controllers who transferred from the DOD received the higher salary that he was denied. The next month, September 2003, Ramirez contacted an EEO Counselor and complained that he had been discriminated against with respect to his pay (the ‘pay claim’).”
While the agency claimed that Ramirez’s claim came too late under Title VII – federal-sector complaints of discrimination must be raised with the agency EEO Counselor within 45 days – the EEOC on review supported Ramirez on this issue –
“It expressly found that There was ‘nothing in the record to show that [Ramirez] either knew or should have known the time limits for initiating the EEO process following a discriminatory event.’ See Ramirez v. Department of Transp., Appeal No. 01A41793, 2004 WL 1396966, at *2 (E.E.O.C. June 9, 2004). As this was tantamount to finding that the claim was timely, the EEOC held that dismissal ‘for untimely EEO Counselor contact [was] improper’ and it remanded the case to the DOT for further proceedings. Id. The DOT did not appeal this ruling or move for reconsideration; instead, it began an investigation into the merits of Ramirez’s pay claim and found that There was no discrimination.”
In 2008, after exhausting all administrative remedies, Ramirez filed a Title VII action. Ramirez navigated his claims without a lawyer all the way through summary judgment and to trial. But the district court dismissed the case at the close of the employee’s case-in-chief, holding that the claims were not timely, and so ruling from the bench –
“[Y]ou were on notice [in 2001] that hiring was taking place — that you had been misled by someone. You were on notice that it’s time to inquire. Someone has told you There’s a hiring freeze. Your buddy tells you, There is no hiring freeze, they’re hiring folks left and right . . . [yet] you did not file a claim until 2003. You’re supposed to file within 45 days. That’s not a timely claim.”
The Eleventh Circuit reverses. It holds that DOT forfeited (“waived”) the timing argument by not taking an appeal of the EEOC administrative decision on the timing issue.
“On appeal to the EEOC, Ramirez argued that he ‘did not know and was not aware of the 45-day time limit in which he was required to contact an EEO Counselor to begin the EEO complaints process.’ The EEOC agreed and held that dismissal on timeliness grounds was improper, as There was ‘nothing in the record to show that [Ramirez] either knew or should have known the time limits for initiating the EEO process following a discriminatory event.’ Significantly, the DOT did not challenge this ruling. Rather, it accepted Ramirez’s complaint, investigated his allegations, and denied him relief on the merits. On these facts, we conclude that the DOT and the district court were bound by the EEOC’s timeliness finding.”
The panel cites decisions from the Second and Ninth Circuit holding that unappealed limitations-period rulings of the EEOC are binding against the agency in a civil action in federal court. It also observes –
“There is a sound rationale and logic in holding that if the EEOC determines that a discrimination claim is timely (or, at least, that There is a valid and adequate reason to excuse its untimeliness), and the agency then accepts that determination and proceeds to investigate and attempt conciliation of the claim, that should put the timing issue to rest.”
Thus, “[b]ecause the EEOC found that There was a satisfactory reason for Ramirez’s delay in making initial contact with the EEO Counselor, and because the DOT did not challenge that finding, but, instead, undertook investigation and conciliation, the DOT and the district court were bound by the EEOC’s finding.”