Aldrich v. Labor

Decision Date18 May 2011
Docket NumberNo. 2010AP1785.,2010AP1785.
Citation2011 WI App 94,801 N.W.2d 457,334 Wis.2d 495
PartiesJoyce ALDRICH, Petitioner–Respondent,v.LABOR AND INDUSTRY REVIEW COMMISSION, Respondent–Co–Appellant,Best Buy Stores, L.P., Respondent–Appellant.†
CourtWisconsin Court of Appeals

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

On behalf of the respondent-appellant, Best Buy Stores, L.P., the cause was submitted on the briefs of Amy Schmidt Jones of Michael, Best & Friedrich LLP, Milwaukee and Scott C. Baumbach of Michael, Best & Friedrich LLP, Madison.On behalf of the respondent-co-appellant, Labor and Industry Review Commission, the cause was submitted on the briefs of David C. Rice, assistant attorney general, and J.B. Van Hollen, attorney general.On behalf of the petitioner-respondent, Joyce Aldrich, the cause was submitted on the brief of Peter M. Reinhardt of Bakke Norman, S.C., Menomonie.Before BROWN, C.J., NEUBAUER, P.J., and ANDERSON, J.NEUBAUER, P.J.

[334 Wis.2d 499] ¶ 1 The Labor and Industry Review Commission and Best Buy Stores, L.P., appeal from a circuit court order vacating a Commission decision that dismissed as untimely Joyce Aldrich's Wisconsin Fair Employment Act (WFEA) claim. We uphold the Commission's determination. Aldrich initiated her discrimination claims with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC); however, she failed to file the discrimination charge within the statutorily required 300 days of her challenged demotion. The Commission determined that the date on which Aldrich's charge was filed with the EEOC also determined the date of the filing of her complaint with the Wisconsin Equal Rights Division. Consequently, her complaint, which was not received by the Wisconsin Equal Rights Division within 300 days of the alleged discrimination, was also untimely. The Commission further determined that any constructive discharge claim made by Aldrich was not timely filed because the claim was not included in her EEOC filing. The Commission's determination that Aldrich's claims are time-barred is not unreasonable. We therefore reverse the circuit court's order and remand with directions to reinstate the Commission's decision.

Applicable Law

¶ 2 An individual who believes he or she has been subjected to workplace discrimination may file a complaint with the EEOC under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and/or the Equal Rights Division (ERD) of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development under the Wisconsin fair employment law, Wis. Stat. §§ 111.31–111.39 (2009–10). 1 Federal law imposes a 300–day time limit on discrimination claims made with the EEOC. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e–5(e)(1). The WFEA permits the department's receipt and investigation of complaints charging discrimination “if the complaint is filed with the department no more than 300 days after the alleged discrimination.” Wis. Stat. § 111.39(1). “Filing,” for purposes of the WFEA, means “the physical receipt of a document” by the ERD. Wis. Admin. Code § DWD 218.02(6) (Nov.2006).

¶ 3 Pursuant to a Worksharing Agreement between the EEOC and the ERD, a complainant may cross-file his or her discrimination claim by filing with one agency, state or federal. The agency first receiving the complaint then transmits it to the other and proceeds with the investigation. For purposes of the WFEA, Wis. Admin. Code § DWD 218.03(5) (Nov.2006) governs the [d]ate of filing of complaint deferred by another agency.” It provides: “A complaint which is deferred to the department by a federal or local employment opportunity agency with which the department has a worksharing agreement complies with the requirements of sub. (3) [governing form and content] and is considered filed when received by the federal or local agency. Id. (emphasis added).

Background

¶ 4 In March 2003, Aldrich was demoted in her employment at Best Buy. That month, Aldrich contacted the EEOC in Milwaukee, inquired about filing a discrimination claim, and subsequently submitted to the EEOC a signed Charge Questionnaire on August 27, 2003. Aldrich understood that her claim was filed as of the date the questionnaire was received by the EEOC. However, the Commission record contains correspondence to Aldrich from the EEOC dated August 29, 2003, in which the EEOC investigator informs Aldrich: “It is necessary that I speak with you to obtain all the information that I need to draft your charge. Therefore, I am requesting that you contact me within five (5) days of your receipt of this letter.” Aldrich averred that she contacted the investigator immediately, discussed the questionnaire, and clarified certain answers. According to Aldrich, she contacted the investigator at least two more times during the fall of 2003 and then, after her case had been transferred, had additional contact with a newly-assigned investigator in December 2003 or January 2004. Aldrich resigned from her position at Best Buy in January 2004. Aldrich submitted supplemental information regarding her resignation to the EEOC in January 2004.

¶ 5 Aldrich signed a Charge of Discrimination on February 4, 2004, alleging sex and age discrimination by Best Buy. Her charge was then filed with the EEOC, as well as the ERD. The EEOC and ERD have a work-sharing arrangement whereby the first agency to receive a claim processes it first. Here, the EEOC transmitted the charge to the ERD on February 17, 2004, and the ERD received the charge on February 18, 2004. Accompanying the EEOC's transmittal was the following: “Transmitted herewith is a charge of employment discrimination initially received by the: EEOC on Feb. 10, 2004 (Date of Receipt).” The EEOC proceeded with its investigation first and dismissed Aldrich's claims in January 2005.

¶ 6 Aldrich then filed an action in federal court, alleging sex and age discrimination under federal law, as well as constructive discharge. The federal court granted summary judgment to Best Buy based on its conclusion that Aldrich's claims were barred because she failed to file her EEOC charge within 300 days of the alleged discrimination. The court also found that the filed charge did not include a claim for constructive discharge and that she failed to timely amend to include such an allegation. The federal court held that although Aldrich filed a “charge questionnaire” with the EEOC in August 2003, she did not file a formal “charge” until February 10, 2004, because she had been notified in writing on August 29, 2003, that her charge would not be filed until she provided more information to the EEOC investigator. The court also found that Aldrich was not entitled to equitable tolling based on her allegation that she was told by an EEOC representative that when she filed her questionnaire her case would be filed. The court reasoned that the August 29, 2003 letter “corrected this misinformation and provided her with the opportunity to supply the information in order that a formal charge could be filed within the statute of limitations period.” Aldrich did not appeal the federal court decision.

[334 Wis.2d 503] ¶ 7 With the federal action dismissed, Aldrich requested that the Wisconsin ERD recommence its investigation of her claims. In June 2006, the ERD determined that there was probable cause to believe that Best Buy discriminated against Aldrich and a hearing was scheduled before an administrative law judge (ALJ). Best Buy moved to dismiss on grounds of claim preclusion, and the ALJ granted Best Buy's motion. The Commission affirmed the ALJ's decision; however, the circuit court reversed on certiorari review. This court affirmed the circuit court's decision, concluding: “Claim preclusion is designed to prevent litigation of matters that were, or could have been, litigated in a prior proceeding. Because Aldrich could not bring her WFEA claims in the prior federal action, the doctrine of claim preclusion is not applicable to her claims before the [ERD].” Aldrich v. LIRC, 2008 WI App 63, ¶ 14, 310 Wis.2d 796, 751 N.W.2d 866 (citation omitted).

¶ 8 On remand, Best Buy again filed a motion to dismiss Aldrich's claims, this time on grounds that Aldrich's demotion claims were time-barred because her EEOC charge was found to be untimely by the federal court and therefore her complaint filed with the ERD was also untimely. Best Buy maintained that the timeliness of the charge under federal law, an issue fully litigated and disposed of in a federal court action, was barred by issue preclusion. Best Buy also contended that the charge did not include a constructive discharge claim and that any attempt to make such a claim now would violate the WFEA's statute of limitations. The ALJ granted Best Buy's motion on March 31, 2009, and that decision was then affirmed by the Commission on May 21, 2009. Aldrich petitioned for circuit court review of the Commission's determination and, on June 9, 2010, the circuit court vacated the Commission's decision. The Commission and Best Buy appeal.

Discussion
Standard of Review

¶ 9 This case requires us to interpret statutes and regulations relating to the filing of a claim under the WFEA. The ultimate goal of statutory interpretation is to ascertain the intent of the legislature, and the first step of this process is to look at the language of the statute. UFE Inc. v. LIRC, 201 Wis.2d 274, 281, 548 N.W.2d 57 (1996). If the plain meaning of the statute is clear, a court should simply apply the clear meaning of the statute to the facts before it. Id. at 281–82, 548 N.W.2d 57. “If, however, the statute is ambiguous, this court must look beyond the statute's language and examine the scope, history, context, subject matter and purpose of the statute.” Id. at 282, 548 N.W.2d 57. If an administrative agency has been charged with the statute's enforcement, a court may also look to the agency's interpretation, and we do so here. See id.

¶ 10 On appeal, we review the Commission's decision, not the circuit court's. Aldrich, ...

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