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Second Circuit Says Time To File A Lawsuit Is Not Extended By Filing A Claim With The EEOC

Ruling on an issue of first impression, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently held a plaintiff does not get more time to file a tort lawsuit in state court merely because he or she first filed a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).

Patricia Castagna resigned from her job at Majestic Kitchens due to an allegedly hostile work environment culminating in an incident in which the owner, Bill Luceno, made her fear for her personal and physical safety.  Castagna then filed a sex-based employment discrimination claim with the EEOC.  By the time the EEOC concluded its investigation  and Castagna proceeded with a federal lawsuit, over a year had passed.  Her lawsuit alleged state and federal discrimination claims as well as New York state tort claims.  The district court dismissed the New York tort claims on the basis that they were filed past the one year statute of limitations, and Castagna appealed.

The Second Circuit upheld the dismissal.  The Court joined the Seventh and Ninth Circuits in holding that filing a claim with the EEOC does not extend the time an employee has to file tort (and presumably other) claims in court.

Castagna argued the interests of judicial efficiency required the statute of limitations of the state tort claims not to run while the EEOC conducted its investigation.  Otherwise, there would be multiple actions in multiple courts dealing with the same set of facts.

The Second Circuit pointed out that both the Seventh and Ninth Circuits considered and rejected similar arguments for tolling the statutes of limitations of state tort claims.  It relied heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson v. Railway Express Agency, Inc.  There, the Supreme Court held that filing a claim of Title VII discrimination with the EEOC does not extend the time an individual has to file a civil rights lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 because they were separate laws with different remedies.

Castagna attempted to distinguish Johnson by arguing it involved two federal statutes, whereas her case contained federal and state claims.  The Second Circuit disagreed.  It read Johnson broadly to state Congress intended plaintiffs to be able to pursue their rights under multiple federal and/or state laws independent of one another.  The Court also explained that a plaintiff could ask a state court to stay proceedings until the EEOC concluded its investigation.  The Court noted nothing prevented Castagna from filing a state court lawsuit concurrent with the EEOC process – she had a right to file a lawsuit while the EEOC investigated her claim but simply did not do it.

This decision could result in increased costs for employers as they are forced to defend against an identical set of facts in different proceedings brought at different times.  Aggrieved employees wary of losing their right to file a lawsuit while an agency investigates their claim may file a state lawsuit while their federal claims are before the agency, and then a separate federal lawsuit after the EEOC concludes its investigation.  The Second Circuit addressed this issue by suggesting that an employee could file a lawsuit and ask the court to stay proceedings while an agency completes its investigation.  However, this would ostensibly be a case-by-case decision, made at the discretion of the court hearing a particular case.

Brody and Associates regularly advises management on complying with state and federal employment laws.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.965.0560.