Affirming summary judgment against a former Walmart employee’s ADA claims, the Eighth Circuit agreed with a district court that settlement communications between Walmart and the employee’s attorney did not show any misconduct by Walmart that lulled the employee into missing the deadline for timely filing an EEOC charge. Consequently, equitable estoppel did not foreclose the retail giant’s statute of limitations defense (Rodriguez v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., June 11, 2018, Loken, J.).
The employee, who worked as a senior marketing manager for Walmart, was terminated on November 12, 2013. On June 30, 2014, he filed an EEOC charge alleging Walmart violated the ADA by discriminating and retaliating against him due to his disability and by refusing to reasonably accommodate him. After receiving a right-to-sue letter, he filed this suit in October 2016. Granting summary judgment for Walmart, the district court found that the employee failed to file his EEOC charge within 180 days of the alleged ADA violation as the statute requires.
Walmart not estopped from limitations defense. On appeal, the employee conceded his charge was untimely but claimed the district court erred in not finding Walmart equitably estopped from asserting a statute of limitations defense. Affirming, the Eighth Circuit noted that the statutory requirement to file a timely EEOC charge is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling and equitable estoppel, but those did not apply here.
Equitable estoppel applies if “the employee’s failure to file in timely fashion is the consequence of either a deliberate design by the employer or of actions that the employer should unmistakably have understood would cause the employee to delay filing his charge.”
Here, the employee claimed that Walmart’s settlement discussions lured him into missing the deadline for filing a charge. He submitted letters and emails reflecting settlement negotiations, which started after his attorney notified Walmart of the alleged ADA violations in late March 2014. Walmart disputed the allegations but expressed willingness “to determine whether we can resolve this dispute amicably.” The parties had phone discussions and the employee’s attorney made a settlement demand on May 2, indicating he planned to file an EEOC charge. Walmart did not respond and in a May 30 letter, the attorney said he would file the charge if Walmart didn’t respond by June 4. On June 4, Walmart rejected the settlement demand and made a counteroffer. The EEOC charge was filed on June 30 and settlement discussions continued until mid-July.
The district court found, and the appellate court agreed, that none of the letters raised a triable issue on equitable estoppel. Instead, they showed a “general, good faith intent by Walmart to engage in settlement negotiations.” The employee’s attorneys sent a demand letter 10 days before the EEOC filing deadline and didn’t receive a response until after the deadline. On these facts, “Walmart’s silence cannot be construed as anything but silence. Walmart made no promise to settle, nor did it encourage that settlement was imminent through its silence.” Accordingly, summary judgment was properly granted.
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