202 F.3d 1170 (9th Cir. 2000), 98-16437, Santa Maria v. PacBell

Docket Nº:98-16437
Citation:202 F.3d 1170
Party Name:JAMES F. SANTA MARIA, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. PACIFIC BELL, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:January 25, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

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202 F.3d 1170 (9th Cir. 2000)

JAMES F. SANTA MARIA, Plaintiff-Appellee,


PACIFIC BELL, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 98-16437

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

January 25, 2000

Argued and Submitted May 13, 1999

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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COUNSEL: Jim D. Newman, Pacific Telesis Group, San Francisco, California, for the defendant-appellant.

William A. Wineberg, Wineberg, Simmonds & Narita, San Francisco, California, for the plaintiff-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California; Susan Yvonne Illston, District Judge,

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Presiding. D.C. No. CV-97-00148-SI/PJH

Before: Betty B. Fletcher and Barry G. Silverman, Circuit Judges, and Tom Stagg,1 District Judge.


SILVERMAN, Circuit Judge:

This disability discrimination case concerns the circumstances under which equitable estoppel or equitable tolling will excuse the failure to file a timely EEOC charge. We hold that a plaintiff's reasonable reliance on fraudulent concealment is required for application of the doctrine of equitable estoppel. We also hold that equitable tolling will not excuse the untimely filing of an EEOC charge by a plaintiff who, within the time limit, knew or should have known of the existence of a possible disability discrimination claim.

I. Facts

A. Santa Maria's Employment with Pacific Bell

James F. Santa Maria was hired by Pacific Bell ("PacBell") in 1980 as an installation supervisor. Eventually, he became an assistant project manager in one of PacBell's technology support organizations, and was responsible for developing computer applications to enhance customer service. In 1994, believing that Santa Maria's job performance had become unsatisfactory, Santa Maria's then-supervisor placed him on an intensive "coaching program." When Santa Maria's work improved, he was taken off the coaching program.

Sometime thereafter, Santa Maria made what PacBell considered to be two serious on-the-job errors, one of which delayed a product launch. About three weeks later, the situation came to a head when Santa Maria informed his PacBell supervisors that he had completed certain systems work. When other managers tested the application, however, they found that the program had not been correctly implemented, and customers were not able to access the program properly. On January 6, 1995, JoAnne Penrith, the head of Santa Maria's department, informed Santa Maria that she was recommending his termination from employment for poor performance. Penrith sent Santa Maria home with pay pending approval of her recommendation.

Santa Maria immediately contacted PacBell's Employment Assistance Program complaining of stress caused by his threatened termination. Santa Maria was referred to Dr. Gregory Larson, an outside psychologist, who made a diagnosis of major depression. Dr. Paul Hersch, a psychologist in PacBell's medical department, agreed with Dr. Larson's diagnosis. Both Doctors Larson and Hersch concluded that Santa Maria's depression temporarily disabled him from working. Santa Maria was granted benefits under PacBell's short term disability benefits program from January 9, 1995 through August 11, 1995, during which time he was off work.

While on disability leave, Santa Maria met with his own treating doctors -his psychologist, Dr. Larson, and his psychiatrist, Dr. John Baker -as well as with Dr. Hersch. Doctors Hersch and Larson agreed that Santa Maria could return to work in early August if he were eased back on a half-time schedule the first week. After the first week, there were no restrictions placed on Santa Maria's work schedule. Santa Maria returned to work on August 11, 1995. Upon his return, Santa Maria was placed on a 30-day written improvement program containing specific goals and deadlines. Santa Maria was informed on his first day back that if he failed to meet the objectives of the improvement program, he would be terminated from employment with PacBell.

Shortly after Santa Maria's return from disability leave, Dr. Larson called Beth

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Knueven, the disability nurse at PacBell, to inform her that he believed Santa Maria was being treated unfairly and that the strict time pressures of his program were inappropriate given Santa Maria's mental health. On September 14, 1995, Santa Maria informed John Bianchi, a senior supervisor, that he did not feel he was ready to come back to work and face the pressures of the 30-day improvement program. Santa Maria said that he thought his medication was slowing him down, and that he "may be ready to come back and try and manage things with a little less pressure but not a 30 day program." Bianchi advised Santa Maria to consult his doctors, because it was Bianchi's understanding that Santa Maria was to have returned to work without restrictions.

That same day, Dr. Larson wrote the following letter to Nurse Knueven on Santa Maria's behalf:

It is my understanding that on the day of his return to work, Mr. Santa Maria was confronted with an ultimatum; a written contract that he had 30 days to fully complete a specific, complex project, and if he did not meet this criteria he would be terminated.

These are not the conditions under which I and Dr. Baker were releasing Mr. Santa Maria to work. These conditions are not medically appropriate for Mr. Santa Maria's return to work and rehabilitation. Further, I do not believe they comply with the laws governing disabilities in the work place.

* * *

The managers involved supervising [sic] Mr. Santa Maria do not adequately understand his condition nor do they demonstrate the ability to provide Mr. Santa Maria with the proper balance of setting rea sonable goals and limits, while concurrently, provide [sic] him with support and guidance.

* * *

I believe Mr. Santa Maria should be provided such an environment within a realistic time frame to meet specific, reasonable, and concrete requirements for continued employment. This should take place over a three to four month period rather than a 30 day period.

Knueven did not reply to Larson's letter, but filed it in Santa Maria's medical file without showing it to other PacBell personnel, out of concern, she later testified, for Santa Maria's privacy. It is significant to note that Santa Maria knew that his doctor had sent a letter to PacBell . However, he neither saw nor requested a copy of it. Santa Maria did request that Ms. Knueven show the letter to his supervisors, and Knueven did communicate the essence of Dr. Larson's recommendations to PacBell personnel after Santa Maria's 30-day improvement program expired.

Dr. Larson's letter caused PacBell managers to extend Santa Maria's improvement program to until December 1, 1995. The extended program was similar to the 30-day program, but set out additional objectives and deadlines, and included a few objectives from the original improvement...

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