E-Alerts & Press Releases

Court Simplifies Filing Claims In Discrimination Suits

On January 9, 2007, the Maryland Court of Appeals sided with a PJC brief in ruling that the date of discharge of a worker, which starts the clock running on the two years the worker has to file a lawsuit for disability discrimination, begins on the date she was actually terminated, rather the earlier date that she had been notified she would be fired. Although seemingly a technical issue, this decision favorably impacts the ability of low-income workers to file discrimination claims.

In Suzanne Haas v. Lockheed Martin, an employee filed an employment discrimination case in court within two years after she was actually discharged. But the trial court held that the clock started ticking when she was "notified" she would be dismissed, and she was too late under that rule. The PJC and the Maryland Employment Lawyers Association argued in their amicus brief that interpreting the time limit to be from the earlier point of "notice" rather than the latter date of actual discharge undermined an employee's ability to file a discrimination claim, and would particularly affect low income workers.

The amicus brief raised two points. First, a "notice" rule contravenes a core purpose of Maryland Anti-Discrimination Laws – to provide a remedy for victims of employment discrimination – by unduly limiting the ability of victims to bring employment discrimination claims because it (1) unnecessarily shortens the timeframe during which employees may file a cause of action; (2) relies on the ambiguous date of notice rather than the bright line date of the actual discharge, thereby creating uncertainty about when those claims are timely and inviting confusion over whether a claim can be brought at all; and (3) discourages employees from pursuing informal remedies with their employer. Second, the "notice rule" weakens the overriding social interest in promoting access to justice for low-income workers because it compounds the difficulties of low-income workers to find counsel to represent them.

The Maryland Court of Appeals adopted much of PJC’s reasoning in its decision, articulating that a bright line rule promotes simplicity and is in accordance with the remedial purpose of Maryland’s Anti-Discrimination Laws. In doing so, Maryland’s Court of Appeals rejected the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court under federal discrimination laws.

On the brief were Roscoe Jones, Jr., Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellow, with assistance from Steve Ruckman, PJC summer law intern, Suzanne Sangree, Director of Appellate Advocacy and Deb Thompson Eisenberg, Esq. for MELA (formerly a PJC attorney, now at Brown, Goldstein & Levy).

An article in the Daily Record, quoting Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellow Janet Hostetler, follows.

Wrongful termination suit was filed on time

January 10, 2007
By CYNTHIA DIPASQUALE,
cynthia.dipasquale@mddailyrecord.com

Clock starts when employee stops work

The statute of limitations for filing a discriminatory discharge lawsuit under state law starts when an employee stops working, not when the notice of termination is given, the state’s top court held.

Yesterday’s 5-2 decision by the Court of Appeals revives a lawsuit by a former Lockheed Martin Corp. employee in Montgomery County. The court rejected the standard used by the Supreme Court and many states, under which the limitations period starts at notification.

“It’s very tempting when you have Supreme Court cases cited all over the country to simply defer to them,” said Laurence S. Kaye, attorney for Suzanne Haas. “But that’s not how things work in Maryland. You apply Maryland principles to Maryland law. … That was a step skipped by the circuit court and the Court of Special Appeals.”

In Haas’ case, the lower courts had deferred to the federal holdings.

Maryland has a two-year statute of limitations for filing employment discrimination claims, with the clock starting on the date of “discharge.” However, “discharge” is not defined.

The Montgomery County Circuit Court and Court of Special Appeals relied on two Supreme Court interpretations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — Chardon v. Fernandez and Delaware State College v. Ricks — in deciding that Haas’ date of discharge was the date she was notified she’d lose her job, since that is when the alleged illegal act actually began.

That was in error, however, the Court of Appeals held.

Rather than look to the federal holdings, the lower courts should have applied the principles of statutory construction.

“The Court of Special Appeals appears to have sidestepped this principle in favor of relying on federal decisional law construing Title VII as a surrogate for analysis of the meaning of the terms used in the Maryland enactments,” Judge Glenn T. Harrell wrote for the court.

“While it certainly is permissible to have recourse to federal law similar to our own as an aid in construction of Maryland statutory law, it should not be a substitute for the pre-eminent plain meaning inquiry of the statutory language under examination,” he continued.

After undertaking its own statutory construction analysis, the court determined it is commonly understood that the date a person is discharged is the date they are out of work.

“This doesn’t harm anyone,” Kaye said about the decision. “All it does it tell everybody what to expect. … As painful as it is for Lockheed, it helps both employees and employers because it gives a bright-line rule that can be applied.”

Lockheed Martin spokesman Tom Greer noted that the court’s decision was on a procedural issue.

It “was not a decision on the merits of Ms. Haas’ allegations,” he said. “We continue to believe her allegations are without merit. And we look forward to prevailing at trial.”

Amici

Numerous groups filed briefs on behalf of both Haas and Lockheed Martin.

The Public Justice Center in Baltimore was interested in how the outcome could affect low-income workers.

“The simpler ruling promotes settlement and is cheaper. And there’s often a better resolution for everyone if an employee and employer can work their differences out without going to court,” said appellate advocacy fellow Janet M. Hostetler. “This allows for that.”

The National Chamber Litigation Center Inc., an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, filed a brief supporting Lockheed’s position. Its interest was in maintaining uniform labor laws for businesses operating nationally, according to Senior Vice President Robin S. Conrad.

“The departure from the Supreme Court rules and rules of other federal courts creates needless uncertainty for companies that do business in Maryland and leaves the business community with a great degree of uncertainty.”

‘Vindicated’

Haas was hired as a program administrator in October 1998 at Lockheed Martin’s Bethesda headquarters. She later was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

She alleged that a supervisor became unfairly critical of her after learning of the diagnosis, and pushed her out of the company.

Haas was notified on Oct. 9, 2001, that her position was being eliminated effective Oct. 23 — her last day of work. She filed an employment discrimination case against the company in Montgomery County Circuit Court on Oct. 22, 2003.

Haas is now living in Ohio and consults in both Ohio and Washington D.C.

She commented through her attorney that “the justice system might be slow from time to time, but I am really happy that justice has been served here. I feel very vindicated,” she said.

The case now returns to Montgomery County Circuit Court for a trial on the merits.



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