Friday, June 3, 2011

3rd Circuit on Sua Sponte Dismissal for Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies - COTW #43

For my non-lawyer readers, don't be turned off by the technical jargon in the headline... we can work through this. "Sua sponte" just means the court did something all on its own, without a party asking the court to do that something. In this week's employment law Case of the Week, that something was dismiss a Plaintiff's discrimination claim. Let's see why.

Before you sue an employer for discrimination under Title VII, there are certain procedural requirements which must be met. One major requirement, is that you must file a complaint with the EEOC and/or the state equivalent (in Pennsylvania, the PHRC) within 300 days of the violation (the time limit gets a little tricky sometimes, contact a lawyer for help with the details). What if you don't do that?

Well, in Fernandez v. Rose Trucking, that's exactly what happened. Ordinarily, the defendant must raise the issue in its pleadings as an affirmative defense, which bars the lawsuit altogether. Here, the district court raised the issue all on its own and dismissed the case without the defendant raising the issue. Just last week, the Third Circuit held, on appeal, that it is OK for district courts to dismiss cases on their own... sometimes.

When? "[D]ismissal may be appropriate where the plaintiff concedes that he failed to exhaust." In Fernandez, the plaintiff expressly stated that he was ignorant of the need to contact the agencies. When he finally did, the EEOC informed him that "the time limit . . . had expired." He also stated that he was not aware that he could contact the state agency. Thus, the Court concluded that sua sponte dismissal was appropriate "under these limited circumstances."

There are a few lessons here. For employees with claims of discrimination, you need to get in touch with a lawyer, state agency, or EEOC as soon as possible to jump through the proper procedural hoops. For employers, you ordinarily need to raise failure to exhaust administrative remedies as an affirmative defense. But, sometimes, the court can dismiss the case for failure to exhaust administrative remedies all on its own.

Citation: Fernandez v. Rose Trucking, 2011 WL 2065064, No. 10-3409 (3d Cir. May 26, 2011).

Posted by Philip Miles, an attorney with McQuaide Blasko in State College, Pennsylvania in the firm's civil litigation and labor and employment law practice groups.