Question:

A little over two years ago, my company closed the plant where I worked. Prior to closing, many of the African-American employees, such as myself, suffered discrimination. Our supervisors frequently made racial comments within our earshot, and regularly disciplined and sometimes terminated African-American employees for incidents which non-African American employees would not be disciplined or terminated. When the plant closed, only non-African American employees were offered the opportunity to transfer to one of the company’s other plants. A group of us recently went to see an attorney, but were informed that any discrimination claims were barred by California’s two-year personal injury statute of limitations. Is this true?

Answer:

Maybe not. There are a number of different state and federal claims that could arise from the facts you mentioned. For many of the claims under federal law, prior to pursuing a lawsuit in civil court, an employee typically must file charges against the employer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within 180 days after the occurrence of any alleged act of unlawful employment discrimination. If the EEOC determines that no discrimination took place and issues a “right-to-sue notice,” or finds that discrimination did take place but cannot reach a conciliation agreement with the employer, the aggrieved employee may then file a civil suit. Under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), an employee claiming discrimination against an employer generally must first file a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) within one year of the last alleged unlawful action. Thereafter, if the DFEH issues a right-to-sue letter, the employee must bring a civil suit within one year after the date of notice. Typically, however, an employee can immediately request and will be issued a right-to-sue letter if he or she does not want the DFEH to investigate.

Most significantly, the United States Supreme Court recently held in Jones, et al. v. R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company (May 3, 2004) 124 S. Ct. 1836, that an employee’s lawsuit against his or her employer alleging federal causes of action for violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, fell within the purview of Congress’ four-year catch-all statute of limitations for actions arising under federal statutes after December 1, 1990, and was not time-barred by state personal injury statutes of limitation.

In the Jones case, African-American employees alleged that they had been discriminated against in a manner similar to which you have described. They filed suit against their employer under the Civil Rights Act of 1991, alleging racially hostile work environment, wrongful termination, and failure-to-transfer claims. The employer argued that the employees’ claims were barred by Illinois’ two-year personal injury statute of limitations. The Supreme Court concluded that the employees’ claims, as alleged, came within the purview of the four-year catch-all statute of limitations that Congress had enacted, and were not time-barred.

So, while your state discrimination claims may or may not be time barred by California’s two-year personal injury statute of limitations, and the exhaustion of administrative remedies requirements of the FEHA and EEOC, if you attempt to obtain relief under the Civil Rights Act of 1991, alleging similar causes of action, such relief would be subject to the four-year federal catch-all statute of limitations period.
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