Aldrich v. Labor & Indus. Review Comm'n

Decision Date23 May 2012
Docket NumberNo. 2010AP1785.,2010AP1785.
Citation115 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. (BNA) 94,341 Wis.2d 36,814 N.W.2d 433,2012 WI 53
PartiesJoyce ALDRICH, Petitioner–Respondent–Petitioner, v. LABOR AND INDUSTRY REVIEW COMMISSION, Respondent–Co–Appellant, Best Buy Stores, L.P., Respondent–Appellant.
CourtWisconsin Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

For the petitioner-respondent-petitioner there were briefs by Peter M. Reinhardt, Bridget M. Finke and Bakke Norman, S.C., Menomonie and oral argument by Peter M. Reinhardt.

For the respondent-appellant there was a brief by Amy Schmidt Jones, Steven A. Nigh and Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, Milwaukee and oral argument by Amy Schmidt Jones.

For the respondent-co-appellant there was a brief by David C. Rice, assistant attorney general and J.B. Van Hollen, attorney general and oral argument by David C. Rice.

SHIRLEY S. ABRAHAMSON, C.J.

[341 Wis.2d 43]¶ 1 This is an employment discrimination case. The state and federal antidiscrimination statutes are remedial; they are designed to remedy problems identified by the state legislature and Congress.

¶ 2 The Wisconsin legislature has declared that it is the legislative intent “to protect by law the rights of all individuals to obtain gainful employment and to enjoy privileges free from employment discrimination.” 1 The Wisconsin Fair Employment Act is designed to encourage and foster, to the extent practicable, the employment of all qualified individuals.

¶ 3 The United States Supreme Court has stated that all filings under the federal antidiscrimination statutes should be construed “to protect the employee's rights and statutory remedies;” 2 the federal procedures to claim employment discrimination “must be accessible to individuals who have no detailed knowledge of the relevant statutory mechanisms and agency processes.” 3

¶ 4 Joyce Aldrich, the petitioner, seeks review of a published court of appeals decision.4 The court of appeals affirmed an opinion of the Wisconsin Labor and Industry Review Commission (LIRC) dismissing Ms. Aldrich's state discrimination claims against her employer, Best Buy Stores, L.P. Ms. Aldrich claims that Best Buy discriminated against her on the basis of her age and gender.

¶ 5 Ms. Aldrich filed her claims first with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The claims later went to the Equal Rights Division (ERD) of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development by a procedure known as deferral. The claimed discriminatory conduct in the present case occurred nearly 10 years ago. Neither Ms. Aldrich nor Best Buy has had the merits of the claims heard by any court or any federal or state administrative agency. The decision today gives Ms. Aldrich and Best Buy an opportunity to be heard.

¶ 6 At this stage, the appeal raises the following two issues:

¶ 7 First, under the circumstances of the present case and the governing rules promulgated by the Department of Workforce Development, is Ms. Aldrich's complaint deemed filed with the ERD on the date that she filed documents with the EEOC that constituted a “charge” under federal law, or is it deemed filed with the ERD on the date that she filed documents with the EEOC that would have constituted a complaint under state law? Best Buy, LIRC, and the court of appeals take the former approach.

¶ 8 Second, is Ms. Aldrich barred by the doctrine of issue preclusion from litigating before the ERD the timeliness of her filing of the federal “charge” in the EEOC? In other words, may Ms. Aldrich argue before the ERD that her intake questionnaire was a timely filing of a federal “charge” under federal law such that the ERD must consider it a complaint timely filed under state law? LIRC and the court of appeals applied issue preclusion and thus ruled that Ms. Aldrich's complaint was time-barred under the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act because the federal district court had determined that she did not file a timely “charge” with the EEOC under federal law.

¶ 9 For the reasons set forth, we do not definitively decide the first issue. At this stage, we rest our decision on the second issue. We conclude that Ms. Aldrich is not barred by the doctrine of issue preclusion from litigating before the ERD the timeliness of the filing of her federal discrimination “charge” with the EEOC. In other words, Ms. Aldrich may litigate whether the intake questionnaire filed with the EEOC qualifies as a “charge” under federal law. If it does, then under the approach taken by LIRC in this and prior cases, it was filed timely for federal and state purposes and Ms. Aldrich will be deemed to have filed a timely complaint with the ERD.

¶ 10 We conclude that applying the doctrine of issue preclusion in the present case does not comport with principles of fundamental fairness. We reach this decision based on the unique circumstances of Ms. Aldrich's case, the basis for the decision of the federal district court barring Ms. Aldrich's claim as untimely, the shift in the federal law relating to what documents constitute a valid federal “charge” ( see Federal Express Corp. v. Holowecki, 552 U.S. 389, 128 S.Ct. 1147, 170 L.Ed.2d 10 (2008)), and the Wisconsin legislative public policy of protecting the statutory rights of employees with discrimination claims.

¶ 11 Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the court of appeals and remand the matter to LIRC with instructions to remand the matter to the ERD to determine whether the intake questionnaire filed with the federal EEOC in Ms. Aldrich's case satisfies the requirements of a charge under federal law so that the charge was filed timely within the 300–day federal statutory period.

¶ 12 Our opinion is structured as follows.

¶ 13 Part I provides background. Subpart I.A. (¶¶ 17–27) sets forth the relationship between the state administrative agency enforcing the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act and the federal administrative agency enforcing the federal antidiscrimination statutes, to give context to the present case. Subpart I.B. (¶¶ 28–64) provides the facts and procedural history of the present case.

¶ 14 Part II discusses the first issue raised by the parties—the meaning of Wis. Admin. Code § DWD 218.03(5)—and explains that we do not definitively decide the issue at this time. See ¶¶ 65–86.

¶ 15 Part III is our analysis of issue preclusion. Subpart III.A. (¶¶ 90–96) presents the standard of review; subpart III.B. (¶¶ 97–108) analyzes the legal elements of issue preclusion and concludes that they are satisfied in the present case; and subpart III.C. (¶¶ 109–149) analyzes whether applying issue preclusion comports with principles of fundamental fairness in the present case and concludes that it does not.

I

¶ 16 We first set forth the relationship between the state administrative agency enforcing the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act and the federal administrative agency enforcing the federal antidiscrimination statutes, to give context to the present case. We then lay out the facts and procedural history of Joyce Aldrich's discrimination claims.

A

¶ 17 An employee who wishes to pursue a discrimination claim against an employer has the option of filing a claim under the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act with the Equal Rights Division (ERD) of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development or filing a claim under analogous federal statutes with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Because of the overlapping substance of the state and federal statutes, it is common for both the state and federal agencies to become involved at various points in investigating the same claim.

¶ 18 So common, in fact, that the Wisconsin ERD and the Milwaukee District Office of the federal EEOC are parties to a detailed “worksharing agreement.” The stated purpose of the agreement is “to provide individuals with an efficient procedure for obtaining redress for their grievances under appropriate State and Federal laws.”

¶ 19 Under the worksharing agreement, the first agency to receive a discrimination claim ordinarily “defers” the claim to the other agency.

¶ 20 The use of the word “defers” is somewhat strange. It appears to mean that the administrative agency that first receives the claim notifies the other agency that a claim has been filed. The worksharing agreement dictates that the first agency to receive a claim will process the claim and the “other” agency takes no action initially. In other words, although the rules and the agreement refer to the first agency “deferring” a claim to the “other agency,” it is actually the “other agency” (here the ERD) that “defers” to the agency in which the claim is first filed (here the EEOC).

[341 Wis.2d 48]¶ 21 The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development has promulgated a rule governing the timeliness of complaints before the ERD in deferral situations:

Wis. Admin. Code § DWD 218.03(5). Date of filing of complaint deferred by another agency. A complaint which is deferred to the [Department of Workforce Development] by a federal or local employment opportunity agency with which the department has a worksharing agreement complies with the requirements of sub. (3) and is considered filed when received by the federal or local agency. 5

¶ 22 The time limit for filing a claim under both the state and federal statutes is 300 days from the date of the alleged discrimination. In the federal system, the document to be filed within the 300–day statutory period is referred to as a charge. In the state system, the document to be filed is referred to as a “ complaint ” in the statutes as well as in the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development rules.6 A rule of the Department of Workforce Development sets forth the contents of a complaint, and by rule the Department agrees to provide “appropriate assistance in completing and filing complaints.” 7

[341 Wis.2d 49]¶ 23 According to LIRC, under Wis. Admin. Code § DWD 218.03(5), set forth above, in deferral situations the document that constitutes a federal “charge”...

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