On July 27, 2016, in Reginald Mitchell v. California Department of Public Health (“Mitchell”) (Superior Court Case No. BC550911), the Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District held that the one year statute of limitations for filing a California Fair Employment and Housing Action (“FEHA”) civil action was equitably tolled while the employee’s complaints were investigated. Under the Court’s ruling, an employee may have substantially longer than one year to file a civil discrimination case against his or her employer. In Mitchell, the Court held that Plaintiff’s Complaint was timely even though it was filed nearly three years after the DFEH issued its “right to sue” letter
In Mitchell, plaintiff was a health facilities investigator for the California Department of Health (“Department”). Plaintiff resigned from the Department in 2011 after filing internal complaints for race discrimination. Mitchell subsequently filed a complaint with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). The EEOC referred the complaint to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”). Pursuant to California Government Code section 12965(b), employees must exhaust their administrative remedies with the DFEH and receive permission to sue in the form of a “right to sue” notice before they can file a civil lawsuit. The DFEH issued Mitchell a “right to sue” letter on July 9, 2011. The DFEH’s letter stated that Mitchell had one year from July 9, 2011 to bring a civil lawsuit. The letter also stated that “pursuant to [California] Government Code section 12965, subdivision (d)(a), this one-year period will be tolled during the pendency of the EEOC’s investigation of your complaint.
More than two years after the DFEH issued its “right to sue” letter, the EEOC issued a “letter of determination” stating there was “reasonable cause” to believe Mitchell had suffered racial discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (Title VII)). The EEOC was unable to settle the matter, and the United States Department of Justice issued a federal “right to sue” notice on March 21, 2014. Under federal law, an aggrieved employee only has ninety days to file a lawsuit after receiving a federal “right to sue” notice.
Mitchell filed a civil lawsuit for racial discrimination on July 8, 2014. The lawsuit was filed almost three years after the DFEH issued its “right to sue” notice, 11 months after the EEOC issued its “letter of determination” and 107 days after the issuance of the federal “right to sue” notice. The Department demurred to Mitchell’s Complaint arguing that it was barred by the 90 day federal statute of limitations time period. The trial court sustained the Department’s demurrer without leave to amend.
The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court. The Court held that the one year time period triggered by the DFEH’s issuance of a “right to sue” notice on September 9, 2011 was “equitably tolled” while the EEOC investigated Mitchell’s allegations. The statute of limitations did not begin to run again until the EEOC issued its “letter of determination” on September 30, 2013. Since Mitchell’s Complaint was filed less than a year after the issuance of the EEOC’s “letter of determination,” his Complaint was “timely” even though it was filed several years after the DFEH issued its notice, and 17 days past the expiration of the federal statute of limitations.
The Mitchell case is a reminder that employers need to consider more than just the statutory deadlines when calendaring the statute of limitations for employee discrimination lawsuits. As made clear by Mitchell and the cases it relies on, equitable factors can frequently extend the time period for filing a civil lawsuit. Thus, while the statutes provide “dates certain” for the period in which an employee must file his or her civil lawsuit, the courts will look carefully at the specific facts of the case and will exercise their equitable powers to permit employees to file claims that might be barred by the black letter of the statutes.