“Continuing Violation” Theory Overrides Time Limit For Filing Hostile Enviornment Charges Under Title VII

On June 10, 2002, the U. S. Supreme Court issued an important decision in a case involving the time limit for filing a charge of discriminatory workplace conduct. In National Railroad Passenger Corporation v. Morgan, the Court was asked to decide the limits of the “continuing violation” doctrine under federal anti-discrimination law. The “continuing violation” doctrine overrides the statute of limitations for actions brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which otherwise would bar conduct occurring more than 300 days prior to the charge. The doctrine permits employees to recover for discriminatory acts, such as harassment or promotion denials, that fall outside the limitations period, as long as part of a “continuing violation” is within the period.

In the case, a railroad electrician filed a charge with the EEOC and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing on February 27, 1995, claiming he was subjected to racial discrimination in hiring, discipline, and discharge, as well as racially motivated insults. He received a right to sue letter on July 3, 1996, and he filed a lawsuit on October 3 of that year. On the employer’s motion, the district court held the electrician could not recover for discriminatory acts occurring before May 3, 1994, which was 300 days before he filed the charge.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed the district court, determining that the “continuing violation” doctrine applied and that Morgan could sue on all of his claims. The court’s rationale was that the different types of discrimination alleged (terms and conditions, hostile environment, and retaliation) were part of a “systemic” pattern, permitting the jury to consider all discriminatory acts for liability purposes.

The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part. Justice Clarence Thomas, former chairperson of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, wrote the majority opinion. Reversing part of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, the Supreme Court unanimously held that a plaintiff must file a charge within 300 days (or 180 if there is no state agency) of a discrete discriminatory act. Therefore, a plaintiff must timely file a charge for each promotion denial, termination, or other discrete act that is separately actionable or the chance for recovery is lost. However, the plaintiff may use prior alleged discriminatory acts as background evidence, subject to the rules of evidence and the trial court’s discretion. The Court noted that the limitation period may be enlarged under certain defined circumstances, but cautioned that they be invoked “sparingly.”

As to the hostile environment discrimination claim, the Court affirmed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling by a five to four vote. In so doing, the Court noted that the very essence of a hostile environment claim is the repetition of acts that together support the action, and not discrete acts that independently constitute a claim. Provided one act of the hostile environment is within the limitations period, the entire period of hostile environment is considered for purposes of assessing liability. This is very significant, as the courts previously had limited a plaintiff’s ability to recover damages for conduct occurring outside the limitations period. Now, employers may be liable for damages for the entire period of the alleged hostile environment, although certain “equitable” defenses may limit the scope of claims where employees unreasonably have delayed bringing them, and employers have been prejudiced as a result.