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Discrimination Lawsuit Time Limits

Federal courts will not resolve Title VII discrimination claims unless the aggrieved employee files a claim of discrimination with the EEOC within 180 days of the last discriminatory act.

Key point 8-07. Employees and applicants for employment who believe that an employer has violated a federal civil rights law must pursue their claim according to a specific procedure. Failure to do so will result in the dismissal of their claim.

Key point 8-08.2. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It consists of both "quid pro quo" harassment and "hostile environment" harassment. Religious organizations that are subject to Title VII are covered by this prohibition. An employer is automatically liable for supervisory employees' acts of harassment, but a defense is available to claims of hostile environment harassment if they have adopted a written harassment policy and an alleged victim fails to pursue remedies available under the policy. In some cases, an employer may be liable for acts of sexual harassment committed by non-supervisory employees, and even non-employees.

* A federal appeals court ruled that a female church employee's lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and retaliation against her employer had to be dismissed because she failed to file a claim of discrimination with the EEOC within 180 days of the last offending act. A female church employee (Beth) alleged that she had been sexually harassed by the church's senior pastor, who was her supervisor. She claimed that the last discriminatory act occurred on April 30, 2002, when she was terminated from her employment in retaliation for reporting the pastor's sexual harassment. She filed charges of discrimination with the EEOC and a state agency more than 180 days, but less than 300 days, after the last act of alleged discrimination. On July 2, 2003, the EEOC dismissed the charges. Beth later sued her church, and regional and national denominational agencies (the "church defendants"), in federal court alleging sex discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She claimed that all three church defendants were her "employer" under Title VII, which prohibits covered employers from engaging in sex discrimination (including sexual harassment and retaliation).

A federal district court dismissed all of Beth's VII claims. It dismissed her Title VII claims on the ground that she failed to file her charge of discrimination with the EEOC within 180 days of the last alleged discriminatory employment practice. The district court held that a longer 300-day filing period available under state law did not apply since "nonprofit religious organizations are exempt from the Washington Law Against Discrimination's employment discrimination provisions." Beth appealed.

Title VII time limits for filing charges with the EEOC

Title VII establishes two potential time limitations periods within which a plaintiff must file a claim of discrimination with the EEOC. Generally, a Title VII plaintiff must file a claim with the EEOC within 180 days of the last act of discrimination. However, the limitations period is extended to 300 days if the plaintiff first institutes proceedings with a "state or local agency with authority to grant or seek relief from such practice." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1).

EEOC regulations provide that the 180-day time limit applies if the state or local "fair employment practices" agency lacks subject matter jurisdiction over a charge. In other words, a state having a fair employment practices agency having no jurisdiction over a religious employer "is equivalent to a jurisdiction having no fair employment practices agency. Charges over which a fair employment practices agency has no jurisdiction are … timely filed if received by the EEOC within 180 days from the date of the alleged violation." 29 C.F.R. § 1601.13(a)(2).

The court concluded that the 180-day limit applied since the Washington State employment discrimination law does not apply to religious organizations. And, since Beth filed her claim with the EEOC more than 180 days after the last alleged discriminatory act, her lawsuit had to be dismissed.

Constitutionality of the religious exemption under state law

Beth argued that the exemption of nonprofit religious organizations from employment discrimination claims under the Washington Law Against Discrimination violated the First Amendment's ban on the establishment of religion; and, since it was unconstitutional, the 300-day filing period applied and her claim was not late.

The court refused to address this claim since it had been raised for the first time on appeal, and not in the trial court.

Conclusion

The court concluded: "We read Washington State case law as exempting nonprofit religious employers, such as the defendants, from sexual harassment and retaliation charges under the Washington Law Against Discrimination. Thus, the Washington fair employment practices agency did not have jurisdiction over Beth's charges. Accordingly, the 180-day time limit applies … and Beth is not entitled to the longer 300-day filing deadline. We affirm the district court's dismissal of her Title VII claims."

Application. This case illustrates two important points:

1. Churches and other religious organizations having at least 15 employees (including part-time employees), and engaged in interstate commerce, are subject to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits covered employers from discriminating in any employment decisions on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, or religion. Sex discrimination is defined to include both sexual harassment and retaliation.

Churches may be liable for acts of sexual harassment in various ways. When supervisory employees create an offensive working environment through unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, this is "hostile environment" sexual harassment for which the employer will be legally responsible if the supervisor takes any "tangible employment action" against the employee. A tangible employment action includes "a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits." The employer is liable under such circumstances whether or not it was aware of the harassment. In this case, Beth alleged that her supervisor (the senior pastor) engaged in a tangible employment action against her by terminating her employment.

2. Federal courts will not resolve Title VII discrimination claims unless the aggrieved employee files a claim of discrimination with the EEOC within 180 days of the last discriminatory act. A 300-day time limit applies if the employee first institutes proceedings with a "state or local agency with authority to grant or seek relief from such practice." However, EEOC regulations specify that the 180-day time limit applies if the state or local fair employment practices agency lacks jurisdiction over the alleged discrimination. This can occur in two ways. First, the type of discrimination an employee alleges is not prohibited under state law. Second, religious employers are exempt from the state nondiscrimination law. This is exactly what happened in this case. Washington law exempts religious employers from employment discrimination claims, and so the 180-day time limit (rather than the 300-day limit) applied to Beth's claims. Since she failed to file her claim with the EEOC within 180 days, the courts were required to dismiss her claim.

Many state employment discrimination laws exempt religious employers. In such states, aggrieved employees must file a claim of discrimination with the EEOC within 180 days. If they fail to do so, the federal courts will be barred from resolving their Title VII claims. MacDonald v. Grace Church, 457 F.3d 1079 (9th Cir. 2006).

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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Posted:
  • July 1, 2007

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