Sims v. Trus Joist MacMillan

Decision Date09 June 1994
Docket NumberNo. 93-8256,93-8256
Citation22 F.3d 1059
Parties64 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. (BNA) 1766, 64 Empl. Prac. Dec. P 43,096, 62 USLW 2777 John SIMS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. TRUS JOIST MacMILLAN, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

Kenneth Dious, Dious, Bailey & Associates, Athens, GA, for plaintiff-appellant.

Christine E. Howard, Griffin B. Bell, Jr., Atlanta, GA, for defendant-appellee.

Susan L.P. Starr, EEOC, Office of General Counsel, Washington, DC, amicus curiae, E.E.O.C Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia.

Before HATCHETT and DUBINA, Circuit Judges, and ESCHBACH *, Senior Circuit Judge.

DUBINA, Circuit Judge:

This appeal challenges an order of the district court which dismissed this case without prejudice 1 and remanded it to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC" or "Commission"). The district court based the order on its determination that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the EEOC has exclusive jurisdiction over discrimination charges for 180 days. The question we must resolve is whether a complainant is barred from bringing an action in federal district court until 180 days after filing his complaint with the EEOC. Because we hold that early issuance of a notice of right to sue based on the Commission's certification that it will be unable to process the charge within 180 days does not preclude a claimant from filing an action in federal court, we reverse the judgment of the district court.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On February 27, 1983, John Sims ("Sims") signed a charge alleging that Trus Joist MacMillan ("MacMillan") discriminatorily terminated his employment at MacMillan's plant on the basis of race and retaliated against him in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 2000e et seq. The EEOC date-stamped the charge as received on March 20, 1992. One day earlier, on March 19, 1992, the EEOC received Sims's request that the EEOC issue a right to sue letter. On March 31, 1992, the District Director of the EEOC's Atlanta, Georgia, office certified that the charge would not be processed within 180 days and issued a right to sue letter terminating the EEOC's processing of the charge. 2

On June 26, 1992, Sims filed this action against MacMillan in federal district court. MacMillan filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, which the district court granted. Relying on Grimes v. Pitney Bowes, Inc., 480 F.Supp. 1381 (N.D.Ga.1979), the district court held that the "180 day period is one of exclusive jurisdiction of the EEOC." R1-6-1. The court distinguished the cases cited by Sims, stating that although those cases held that premature issuance of a right to sue letter does not invalidate the notice, in none of the cases cited was the right to sue notice requested before the EEOC had an opportunity to investigate the case. Id. at 2 n. 1. The district court also held that the running of the 180 days should be tolled from the date on which the EEOC issued the right to sue notice. According to the court, "another 169 days must elapse before the exclusive authority of the Commission expires." Id. Therefore, the district court dismissed the case without prejudice.

II. DISCUSSION

A district court's dismissal of an action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction is a legal question subject to de novo review. Woodruff v. United States Department of Labor, 954 F.2d 634, 636 (11th Cir.1992). This court reviews de novo a district court's interpretation and application of a statute. Powers v. United States, 996 F.2d 1121, 1123 (11th Cir.1993). The EEOC's interpretation of Title VII "need only be reasonable to be entitled to deference." EEOC v. Commercial Office Products Co., 486 U.S. 107, 115, 108 S.Ct. 1666, 1671, 100 L.Ed.2d 96 (1988).

In reaching its decision, the district court relied upon Grimes v. Pitney Bowes, Inc., 480 F.Supp. 1381 (N.D.Ga.1979). In that case, the plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC on January 18, 1979. Two weeks later, his attorney requested that the EEOC issue a Notice of Right to Sue. The EEOC issued the notice on February 6, 1979, only 19 days after the plaintiff filed his charge. The Acting District Director of the EEOC stated that the commission would be "unable to complete its administrative processes within 180 days from the filing of the charge and that the commission was terminating any further processing of the charge." Id. at 1383. After the plaintiff filed suit, the district court granted the defendant's motion to dismiss, agreeing that the district court lacked jurisdiction over the Title VII claims. The district court stated that "[n]o extraordinary circumstances have been shown in the present case that would justify an exception based on policy grounds to the obvious congressional mandate of a 180-day period of exclusive EEOC jurisdiction." Id. at 1385.

Sims and the EEOC 3 contend that the district court erred in reaching its decision. They argue that the district court improperly relied upon Grimes, because that case was decided before the cases which hold that the procedural requirements of Title VII are to be viewed as conditions precedent, not jurisdictional requirements. Zipes v. Transworld Airlines, Inc., 455 U.S. 385, 393, 102 S.Ct. 1127, 1132, 71 L.Ed.2d 234 (1982) (the timely filing of a charge is not a jurisdictional requirement, but rather is in the nature of a statute of limitations, subject to doctrines of waiver, tolling, and estoppel). See also Fouche v. Jekyll Island-State Park Authority, 713 F.2d 1518, 1524 (11th Cir.1983) ("Jackson 4 mandates that all Title VII procedural requirements to suit are henceforth to be viewed as conditions precedent to suit rather than as jurisdictional requirements"). Therefore, the EEOC argues, and we agree, that just as the timely filing of a charge is not a jurisdictional prerequisite, neither is the requirement that the notice be issued after the expiration of 180 days. Thus, the district court's holding that it was without subject matter jurisdiction to hear this case is erroneous.

Two circuits hold contrary to the district court. Those courts make it clear that when the EEOC issues a right to sue letter at a claimant's request prior to the expiration of the 180-day period, which informs the party that the Commission will be unable to complete the process within 180 days from the filing of the charge and therefore is terminating its processing of the charge, such premature issuance does not preclude a complainant from filing suit in federal district court immediately. See e.g., Brown v. Puget Sound Elec. Apprenticeship & Training Trust, 732 F.2d 726 (9th Cir.1984), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 1108, 105 S.Ct. 784, 83 L.Ed.2d 778 (1985); Saulsbury v. Wismer and Becker, Inc., 644 F.2d 1251, 1257 (9th Cir.1981); Bryant v. California Brewers Association, 585 F.2d 421, 425 (9th Cir.1978), cert. granted, 442 U.S. 916, 99 S.Ct. 2835, 61 L.Ed.2d 282 (1979), vacated 444 U.S. 598, 100 S.Ct. 814, 63 L.Ed.2d 55 (1980); Weise v. Syracuse University, 522 F.2d 397 (2nd Cir.1975).

Several rationales support the courts' conclusions. We find these rationales persuasive: (1) 29 C.F.R. Sec. 1601.28(a) does not prohibit the EEOC from issuing an early right to sue notice prior to the expiration of a 180-day period; (2) the purpose of the 180-day period is to protect the aggrieved party from extended administrative proceedings or bureaucratic backlog; and (3) where the EEOC determines, due to its huge backlog, that it cannot investigate an aggrieved party's charge within the 180-day period and notifies the aggrieved party that it is terminating its investigative efforts, it is pointless for the aggrieved party to stand by and mark time until the 180-day period expires.

In enacting Title VII, Congress charged the Commission with the responsibility to enforce the statute and vested it with the authority "to issue, amend, or rescind suitable procedural regulations to carry out the provisions of this subchapter." Section 713(a), 42 U.S.C. Sec. 2000e-12(a). A regulation promulgated pursuant to section 713(a) must be upheld "so long as it is 'reasonably related to the purposes of the enabling legislation.' " Mourning v. Family Publications Service, Inc., 411 U.S. 356, 369, 93 S.Ct. 1652, 1660-61, 36 L.Ed.2d 318 (1973). See EEOC v. Commercial Office Products Co., 486 U.S. at 115, 108 S.Ct. at 1671 (EEOC's interpretation of statutory language "need only be reasonable to be entitled to deference").

The regulation codified at 29 C.F.R. Sec. 1601.28(a)(2) is such a procedural regulation and is consistent with congressional intent. The regulation states that when the Commission is unable to complete processing of the charge within 180 days, it may issue right to sue letters to charging parties. Specifically, it provides:

When a person claiming to be aggrieved requests, in writing, that a notice of right to sue be issued, and the charge to which the request relates is filed against a respondent other than a government, ... the Commission may issue such notice ... at any time prior to the expiration of 180 days from the date of filing the charge with the Commission; provided, that [a designated official] has determined that it is probable that the Commission will be unable to complete its administrative processing of the charge within 180 days from the filing of the charge and has attached a written certificate to that effect.

29 C.F.R. Sec. 1601.28(a)(2).

The language and history of the statute reveal that this regulation is fully consistent with the purpose of section 706(f)(1). Section 706 of Title VII provides, in pertinent part, that

[i]f a charge filed with the Commission ... is dismissed by the Commission, or if within one hundred and eighty days from the filing of such charge or the expiration of any period of reference ... whichever is later, the Commission has not...

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