Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs

Decision Date03 December 1990
Docket NumberNo. 89-5867,89-5867
Citation112 L.Ed.2d 435,111 S.Ct. 453,498 U.S. 89
PartiesShirley W. IRWIN, Petitioner v. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Petitioner Irwin filed a complaint with the Veterans' Administration (VA), claiming that he had been unlawfully fired by the VA on the basis of his race and disability. The VA dismissed the complaint, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) affirmed that decision on March 19, 1987, mailing copies of a right-to-sue letter to both Irwin and his attorney. Irwin received the letter on April 7. His attorney received actual notice of the letter on April 10, having been out of the country when it was delivered to his office on March 23. Forty-four days after his attorney's office received the letter and 29 days after Irwin received his copy, he filed an action in the District Court, alleging, inter alia, a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction on the ground that the complaint was not filed within the time specified by 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c), which provides that a complaint against the Federal Government must be filed within 30 days "of receipt of notice of final action taken" by the EEOC. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that a notice of final action is "received" when the EEOC delivers its notice to a claimant or his attorney's offices, whichever comes first, and that the 30-day span operates as an absolute jurisdictional limit.

Held:

1. Irwin's complaint was untimely. Section 2000e-16(c) requires that the EEOC's letter be "received" but does not specify that receipt must be by the claimant rather than by his representative. Congress may depart from the common and established practice of providing notification through counsel only if it does so expressly. Irwin's argument that there is a material difference between receipt by an attorney and receipt by his office for purposes of § 2000e-16(c) is rejected. Lower courts have consistently held that notice to an attorney's office which is acknowledged by a representative of that office qualifies as notice to the client, and the practical effect of a contrary rule would be to create uncertainty by encouraging factual disputes about when actual notice was received. P. 92-93.

2. Statutes of limitations in actions against the Government are subject to the rebuttable presumption of equitable tolling applicable to suits against private defendants. Applying the same rule amounts to little, if any, broadening of a congressional waiver of sovereign immunity. Pp. 93-96.

3. Irwin's failure to file may not be excused under equitable tolling principles. Federal courts have typically extended equitable relief only sparingly in suits against private litigants, allowing tolling where the claimant has actively pursued his judicial remedies by filing a defective pleading or where he has been induced or tricked by his adversary's misconduct into allowing the filing deadline to pass. Such equitable tolling principles do not extend to Irwin's claim that his untimely filing should be excused because his attorney was out of the office when the notice was received and he filed within 30 days of the date he personally received notice, which is at best a garden variety claim of excusable neglect. P. 96.

874 F.2d 1092 (CA5 1989), affirmed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. ----. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. ----. SOUTER, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Jon R. Ker, Hewitt, Tex., for petitioner.

John G. Roberts, Jr., Washington, D.C., for respondents.

Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

In April 1986, petitioner, Shirley Irwin, was fired from his job by the Veterans' Administration (VA), which was subsequently redesignated as respondent Department of Veterans Affairs. Irwin contacted an equal employment opportunity counselor and filed a complaint with the VA, alleging that the VA had unlawfully discharged him on the basis of his race and physical disability. The VA dismissed Irwin's complaint, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) affirmed that decision by a letter dated March 19, 1987. The letter, which was sent to both Irwin and his attorney, expressly informed them that Irwin had the right to file a civil action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 253, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., within 30 days of receipt of the EEOC notice. According to Irwin, he did not receive the EEOC's letter until April 7, 1987, and the letter to his attorney arrived at the attorney's office on March 23, 1987, while the attorney was out of the country. The attorney did not learn of the EEOC's action until his return on April 10, 1987.

Irwin filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas on May 6, 1987, 44 days after the EEOC notice was received at his attorney's office, but 29 days after the date on which he claimed he received the letter. The complaint alleged that the VA discriminated against him because of his race, age, and handicap, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.; 81 Stat. 602, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq.; 87 Stat. 390, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 791 et seq.; and the First and Fifth Amendments. Respondent VA moved to dismiss, asserting, inter alia, that the District Court lacked jurisdiction because the complaint was not filed within 30 days of the EEOC's decision as specified in 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c). The District Court granted the motion.

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. 874 F.2d 1092 (1989). The court held that the 30-day period begins to run on the date that the EEOC right-to-sue letter is delivered to the offices of formally designated counsel or to the claimant, even if counsel himself did not actually receive notice until later. Id., at 1094. The Court of Appeals further determined that the 30-day span allotted under § 2000e- 16(c) operates as an absolute jurisdictional limit. Id., at 1095. Accordingly, it reasoned that the District Court could not excuse Irwin's late filing because federal courts lacked jurisdiction over his untimely claim. Ibid. That holding is in direct conflict with the decisions of four other Courts of Appeals.1

We granted certiorari to determine when the 30-day period under § 2000e-16(c) begins to run and to resolve the Circuit conflict over whether late-filed claims are jurisdictionally barred. 493 U.S. 1069, 110 S.Ct. 1109, 107 L.Ed.2d 1017 (1990).

Section 2000e-16(c) provides that an employment discrimination complaint against the Federal Government under Title VII must be filed "[w]ithin thirty days of receipt of notice of final action taken" by the EEOC. The Court of Appeals determined that a notice of final action is "received" when the EEOC delivers its notice to a claimant or the claimant's attorney, whichever comes first. Id., at 1094. Petitioner argues that the clock does not begin until the claimant himself has notice of his right to sue.

We conclude that Irwin's complaint filed in the District Court was untimely. As the Court of Appeals observed, § 2000e-16(c) requires only that the EEOC notification letter be "received"; it does not specify receipt by the claimant rather than by the claimant's designated representative. There is no question but that petitioner appeared by his attorney in the EEOC proceeding. Under our system of representative litigation, "each party is deemed bound by the acts of his lawyer-agent and is considered to have 'notice of all facts, notice of which can be charged upon the attorney.' " Link v. Wabash R. Co., 370 U.S. 626, 634, 82 S.Ct. 1386, 1390, 8 L.Ed.2d 734 (1962) (quoting Smith v. Ayer, 101 U.S. 320, 326, 25 L.Ed. 955 (1880)). Congress has endorsed this sensible practice in the analogous provisions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provide that "[w]henever under these rules service is required or permitted to be made upon a party represented by an attorney the service shall be made upon the attorney unless service upon the party is ordered by the court." Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 5(b). To read the term "receipt" to mean only "actual receipt by the claimant" would render the practice of notification through counsel a meaningless exercise. If Congress intends to depart from the common and established practice of providing notification through counsel, it must do so expressly. See Decker v. Anheuser-Busch, 632 F.2d 1221, 1224 (CA5 1980).

We also reject Irwin's contention that there is a material difference between receipt by an attorney and receipt by that attorney's office for purposes of § 2000e-16(c). The lower federal courts have consistently held that notice to an attorney's office which is acknowledged by a representative of that office qualifies as notice to the client. See Ringgold v. National Maintenance Corp., 796 F.2d 769 (CA5 1986); Josiah-Faeduwor v. Communications Satellite Corp., 251 U.S.App.D.C. 346, 785 F.2d 344 (1986). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5(b) also permits notice to a litigant to be made by delivery of papers to the litigant's attorney's office. The practical effect of a contrary rule would be to encourage factual disputes about when actual notice was received, and thereby create uncertainty in an area of the law where certainty is much to be desired.

The fact that petitioner did not strictly comply with § 2000e-16(c)'s filing deadline does not, however, end our inquiry. Petitioner contends that even if he failed to timely file, his error may be excused under equitable tolling principles. The Court of Appeals rejected this...

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