Continuing Violation Theory Applied to Claims of Hostile Work Environment

Volume 1, Issue 8
August 22, 2002

U.S. Supreme Court Determines that Evidence of Incidents Normally Falling Outside Statute of Limitations Period May Be Used in Cases Alleging Harassment Under Title VII

In a decision that could severely change the way employers defend claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), the U.S. Supreme Court has expanded the scope of evidence that can be used by employees in cases alleging a hostile work environment.

Under Title VII, a plaintiff must file an employment discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") within either 180 or 300 days after an "alleged unlawful employment practice occurred." Mr. Abner Morgan, Jr., a black employee of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation ("Amtrak"), filed a Charge of discrimination and retaliation with the EEOC, alleging that he had been subjected to discrete discriminatory and retaliatory acts and had experienced a racially hostile work environment throughout his employment. While some of the alleged discriminatory acts occurred within 300 days of the time Mr. Morgan filed his EEOC Charge, many took place prior to that time period. Originally, the federal district court hearing the case granted summary judgment in favor of Amtrak since it was determined that Amtrak could not be liable for conduct occurring outside the 300-day filing period. The Ninth Circuit Court reversed, however, finding that the employee could sue on the otherwise time-barred claims if they were "sufficiently related" to incidents falling within the filing period or were part of a systematic policy of discrimination.

On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that whether the employee could rely upon evidence of incidents outside the 300-day filing period depended on whether the employee was asserting a claim of discrimination or a claim of harassment. Under the anti-discrimination provisions of Title VII, a party must file a Charge with the EEOC within 300 days following the "unlawful employment practice." Mr. Morgan claimed that the term "practice" should include all discriminatory acts falling outside the limitations period since they were part of a general course of discrimination. The Court rejected that argument. However, the Court noted that the federal judiciary has repeatedly interpreted the term "practice" to apply to a discrete act or a single "occurrence", even when it has a connection to other acts. As such, discriminatory acts of a discrete nature (i.e., termination, failure to promote, denial of transfer) falling outside the limitations period were no longer actionable.

Hostile work environment claims, according the Court, are different in kind from discrete acts. Because their very nature involves repeated conduct, the "unlawful employment practice" cannot be said to occur on any particular day, and under Title VII, a single act of harassment may not be actionable on its own. Because a hostile work environment claim is composed of a series of separate acts that collectively constitute one "practice", it does not matter that some of the component acts fall outside the statutory time period. As such, the Court held that, provided that an act contributing to the hostile work environment claim occurs within the filing period, the entire time period of the alleged hostile environment, including those acts which would ordinarily be time-barred, may be considered for the purposes of assessing liability.

With this decision, evidence of older incidents of harassment which was once precluded from the determination of liability will now be admissible as long as an employee can demonstrate that at least one incident of harassment falls within the 300-day filing period mandated by Title VII. This decision serves as an important reminder to employers that they must immediately investigate and remedy any complaint of harassment inasmuch as even older instances of unlawful conduct can now be resurrected and cause significant difficulty to an employer's assertion of defenses to a hostile environment claim.

National Railroad Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, Case No. 00-1614 (June 10, 2002).

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