By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.
By filing an EEOC charge within the six months of his discharge, a 54-year-old employee fulfilled the contractual limitations period for filing “claims or lawsuits” against his employer contained in the employee handbook, a federal court in Kentucky ruled in denying the employer’s bid to toss his age-discrimination lawsuit as untimely. The plain meaning of the word “claim” demonstrates that filing an EEOC charge is synonymous with filing a claim, and courts routinely refer to the EEOC charges as claims and do not appear to interpret the word to apply exclusively to judicial proceedings. Therefore, the employee’s filing with the EEOC satisfied his contractual obligation (Spaw v. Amcor Rigid Plastics USA, LLC, September 24, 2018, Hood, J.).
Contractual limitations period. Before he was hired in 2011, the employee completed an employment application that contained a six-month limitations period for “any claim or lawsuit” arising out of his employment or application for employment. The limitations period policy was also outlined in the employee handbook and two acknowledgements that he signed confirming its receipt. In relevant part, the employee acknowledged that he was “required to file a claim or lawsuit” against the employer within six months after the date of the “decision, event, or employment action” that was “the subject of my claim or lawsuit” and that if he failed to do so, “my claim or lawsuit will be deemed to have been waived and forever released.” He also acknowledged that he waived any federal or state limitations for filing claims that were to the contrary “to the fullest extent permitted by law.”
Termination, EEOC filing, lawsuit. After a series of reprimands, the employee was terminated in May 2017. He subsequently filed an EEOC charge asserting age bias within the six-month contractual limitations period, which expired on November 8, 2017. The EEOC subsequently issued its right-to-sue notice, and the employee initiated this lawsuit in April 2018 alleging violations of the ADEA and the Kentucky Civil Rights Act.
In response to the employer’s alternative motions to dismiss or for summary judgment, the employee did not challenge the validity or reasonableness of the contractual limitations clause or any other contractual defenses. Nor did he assert any exceptions to the statute of limitations. Thus, the sole issue was whether his filing of an EEOC charge constituted a “claim.”
Handbook language controls. The limitations period language in the employment application varied slightly from the language in the employee handbook. The application required the employee to bring any claim or lawsuit within six months while the handbook required him to bring a claim or lawsuit within six months. Though the parties disputed whether this variation resulted in any substantive or material difference in outcome or effect, the court found that to the extent it did, the language in the handbook controlled. There was no indication in the application as to its effect if the employee was hired and the language contained in the handbook and the acknowledgement was more recent.
Plain and ordinary meaning of “claim.” Since neither the application nor the handbook defined the meaning of “claim,” the court looked to the ordinary and plain meaning of the term to determine if there was more than one plausible interpretation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a claim is a “demand for something as due” or “an assertion of a right to something.” In the legal context, a claim is a “statement that something yet to be proved is true” or “the assertion of an existing right; any right to payment or to an equitable remedy, even if contingent or provisional” or a “demand for money, property, or a legal remedy to which one asserts a right.”
EEOC charge synonymous. The plain meaning of the word “claim” demonstrated that filing an EEOC charge is synonymous with filing a claim, concluded the court. Each EEOC charge requires the complainant to submit a signed statement of facts and other information that asserts something that has yet to be proved. By filing his EEOC charge, the employee asserted that his employer engaged in unlawful age discrimination, prompting the EEOC initiate an administrative investigation. Moreover, filing an EEOC charge is a prerequisite for an aggrieved employee to file a lawsuit in which he may demand a right to money, equitable relief, or other legal relief arising out of the alleged unlawful discrimination.
In addition, courts have routinely referred to the filing of an EEOC charge as a claim, at least to the extent that an EEOC charge must include an underlying claim of discrimination. The authorities relied on by the employer were distinguishable because they did not hold that filing an EEOC charge is not synonymous with a claim, but instead stood for the proposition that filing an EEOC charge does not constitute filing “a legal action, complaint, or lawsuit.” Accordingly, the employee’s act of filing an EEOC charge constituted a claim that satisfied the limitations period in the employee handbook, which was not ambiguous.
Employer’s own fault. While the employer may have intended for an EEOC charge to be excluded from the meaning of “claim” in the employee handbook, it drafted the contract and was in the best position to clarify the term’s meaning. For instance, it could have defined the meaning of claim, expressly excluded filing an EEOC charge as a claim, or used specific language requiring that employees file any legal action, lawsuit, or complaint within six months. Unfortunately, because it instead failed to define the word claim, the word’s meaning was subject to multiple reasonable interpretations. Ultimately, considering the common usage of the word “claim” and the fact that courts routinely refer to EEOC charges as claims, the employee’s filing with the EEOC satisfied his obligation to file a claim within six months.
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