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The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania held recently that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s “pattern and practice” disability discrimination claims are subject to a 300-day limitations period, furthering a pronounced split among federal district courts on the issue.  In the case, the EEOC took the position that its pattern or practice claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act were not subject to the limitations period, or, in the alternative, that the employer’s violations constituted a “continuous violation” and the EEOC’s claims were, thus, exempt from the 300-day limitations period.  The court, however, agreed with the employer’s position that the EEOC’s claims were subject to the limitations period based upon the plain language of the statute.  The decision holds the EEOC subject to the same limitations period applicable to individual claimants in any Title VII context.

The case at issue, EEOC v. U.S. Steel Corporation, No. 10-1284, involved the EEOC’s claim that U.S. Steel’s random alcohol screening tests of probationary employees violated the ADA.  The EEOC sought relief for any individual terminated from employment due to screening test results dating back to when the testing program began, which was at least January 2006.

The ADA incorporates Sections 706 and 707 of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Under Section 706, the EEOC may sue on behalf of individuals subjected to an unlawful employment practice.  Under Section 707, the EEOC can investigate and act on a charge of a pattern or practice of discrimination, whether arising from a charge filed by a complainant or a member of the Commission.  Actions under both sections are subject to Section 706 procedures, which require that charges be filed within 300 days of the occurrence of the allegedly unlawful practice. 

As a result of the ruling, the claims for which the EEOC can seek relief in the case are limited.  Specifically, the EEOC can only “look back” 300 days before the filing of the administrative charge prompting the EEOC’s investigation and seek relief only for individuals who were subjected to the allegedly discriminatory act from that date forward.  Thus, the EEOC cannot escape the limitations period under Title VII or the ADA merely by asserting a “pattern or practice” claim.  In ruling that the 300-day limitations period applied,  the Western District of Pennsylvania eliminated any claims that arose from the allegedly discriminatory random alcohol screening tests occurring in 2006 and half of 2007. 

Other district courts have applied the 300-day limitations period to scale back EEOC claims even more dramatically.  In a 2010 lawsuit alleging that Freeman Companies engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination in hiring because it used criminal history as a hiring criterion, the EEOC sought relief dating from 2001 (a 9-year period).  By holding that the 300-day limitations period applied, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland eliminated the claims from 2001 to 2007.

Whether pattern or practice claims brought by the EEOC (whether under the ADA or Title VII) are subject to the 300-day limitations period has left a sharp divide among federal district courts.  For example, the Southern and Western Districts of New York fall on opposite sides of the divide; the Southern District has held the 300-day limitations period does apply, while the Western District has held that it does not apply.  No federal court of appeals has addressed the issue.

Notably, whether the limitations period applies may depend on the claim asserted.  For example, since the passage of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the EEOC can assert claims based on compensation decisions that take place prior to the 300-day limitations period, provided that the particular claimant received a paycheck impacted by the allegedly unlawful decision within the limitations period.

The split may encourage forum shopping.  If possible, plaintiffs (including the EEOC) will choose to bring claims in jurisdictions where the 300-day limitations period has been held inapplicable.  Under the circumstances, a plaintiff’s choice of forum should be scrutinized and challenged where appropriate.