Is EEOC Bound by Statutory Limitations Period When Making Pattern-or-Practice Claims?

By Toby Dykes
Birmingham Office

The EEOC continues to aggressively pursue litigation, and when the EEOC files suit, retail employers can expect a costly and protracted legal battle. The agency may not even be limited by the 180-day or 300-day charge-filing period, according to a recent decision from a federal court in Minnesota.

The EEOC filed a pattern-or-practice lawsuit against PMT Corporation, alleging that the company maintained a hiring system that discriminated against female and older applicants for sales positions. Specifically, the EEOC claimed that of the 70 sales representatives PMT hired between January 1, 2007, and October 27, 2010, none were female or over the age of 40.

Because the EEOC did not file a charge until October 27, 2010, PMT argued that any hiring decisions made more than 300 days before that date were not actionable. Accordingly, PMT moved to dismiss the lawsuit, contending that the EEOC did not attempt to conciliate in good faith because it sought relief for untimely claims.

The court denied PMT's motion. Although generally the 300-day period applied in Minnesota, the court said, older alleged discriminatory acts could be considered if there was a continuing violation. And if the EEOC could prove a pattern or practice of discrimination, then it would also establish a continuing violation for timeliness purposes. Therefore, the court said, "relief for conduct outside the 300-day period is not categorically barred, and the EEOC did not act in bad faith by attempting to obtain relief for such conduct."

(Minnesota, and many other states, have fair employment practice agencies. In those states, an EEOC charge must generally be filed no later than 300 days after the last act of alleged discrimination. In states without such agencies, the deadline for filing an EEOC charge is generally 180 days after the last act of discrimination.)

Not all courts have reached the same result as the PMT court. A federal judge in Maryland found that the 300-day limitations period did apply in an EEOC pattern-or-practice suit against Freeman, which involved criminal background checks. That case is now at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which hears appeals from federal courts in Maryland, the Carolinas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

But back to PMT: In addition to finding that a pattern-or-practice claim could be brought for allegations outside of the statutory limitations period, the Minnesota federal court found that the lawsuit did not have to identify the alleged victims by name. Instead, the Court found that by identifying the time period of the alleged discrimination, the alleged perpetrator of the discrimination, and the alleged discriminatory conduct, the EEOC had stated its claims with sufficient particularity to survive a Motion to Dismiss.

The EEOC also filed individual claims of retaliation and constructive discharge on behalf of the Human Resources Manager who brought the alleged discrimination to light, but the court granted PMT's motion to dismiss those claims.

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