• Supreme Court Clarifies Scope of Continuing Violation Doctrine Under Title VII
  • April 29, 2003
  • Law Firm: Pillsbury Winthrop LLP
  • A unanimous United States Supreme Court recently ruled that discrete acts of discrimination do not fall within the continuing violation doctrine of Title VII and, therefore, claims relating to such acts must be brought within 300 days after the alleged, discriminatory incident. National Railroad Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, No. 00-1614, 2002 U.S. LEXIS (June 10, 2002). The decision in Morgan distinguishes claims of "discrete retaliatory" or "discrete discriminatory" acts, which involve isolated incidents, from those alleging "hostile environment," which denotes a series of continuous related acts. Claims alleging a hostile environment will not be time barred even though some of the conduct occurred more than 300 days before the date of the EEOC filing, as long as the claim involves continuing conduct.

    Plaintiff Alleges Certain Acts Beyond The Limitations Period

    The plaintiff, Abner Morgan, sued the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Mr. Morgan alleged that Amtrak had subjected him to discriminatory and retaliatory acts, as well a hostile work environment, based on his race. According to Morgan, the discrimination began when Amtrak hired him in 1990 as an electrician's helper, rather than as an electrician. He alleged other racially motivated acts, including Amtrak's refusal to allow him to participate in an apprenticeship program, numerous written "counselings" for absenteeism, the use of racial epithets against him by his managers, and termination on the pretext of refusing to follow orders.

    On February 27, 1995, Morgan filed with the EEOC and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing a charge of discrimination and retaliation against Amtrak. The charge alleged that Amtrak had consistently harassed Morgan and disciplined him more harshly than other employees on account of his race. The EEOC issued a "Notice of Right to Sue" on July 3, 1996, and Morgan filed suit in District Court on October 2, 1996.

    Title VII requires that a plaintiff file charges of discrimination within 300 days after the alleged incident. Many of the acts Morgan complained of, however, had occurred more than 300 days before the date of the EEOC filing. Accordingly, Amtrak filed for summary judgment to have the court dismiss claims relating to acts alleged to have occurred outside the limitation period. The District Court granted summary judgment, in part, finding that Amtrak could not be liable for discrete acts occurring before May 3, 1994.

    The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the decision, holding that the continuing violation doctrine allows a court to consider conduct that would ordinarily be time barred as long as "the untimely incidents represent an ongoing unlawful employment practice."

    Supreme Court Distinguishes "Discrete Discriminatory Acts"
    From Hostile Environment

    The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit, holding that discrete acts of discrimination do not fall within the continuing violation doctrine. According to the Court, "discrete discriminatory acts are not actionable if time barred, even when they are related to acts alleged in timely filed charges." Thus, while Morgan alleged that he had been the victim of numerous discriminatory and retaliatory acts from the date he was hired through the date he was fired, only those discrete acts that occurred within the 300 days prior to his EEOC charge were actionable.

    The plaintiff tried to persuade the Court that Title VII envisions an ongoing violation that continues over time. The Court disagreed, however, because, in explaining the sorts of actions that qualify as "unlawful employment practices," Title VII lists many discrete acts, including termination, failure to promote, denial of transfer, and refusal to hire. "There is simply no indication that the term 'practice' converts related discrete acts into a single unlawful practice for the purposes of timely filing."

    The Supreme Court went on to hold that "hostile environment claims" differ from claims arising from discrete acts, in that hostile environment claims commonly involve repeated occurrences. While certain acts of harassment may not be actionable on their own, multiple occurrences over a period of time may constitute an "unlawful employment practice." Thus, by definition, hostile environment claims involve continuing conduct.

    Employers Can Control Their Exposure to Liability

    The Supreme Court's ruling reaffirms that employees must be mindful of the statute of limitations. It also warns employers that continuous patterns of harassment will lead to liability. Employers will therefore benefit from taking preemptive measures to prevent discrimination and harassment claims, such as establishing effective discrimination and harassment policies through which employees may seek redress. Employers should also train employees and supervisors on what conduct may constitute discrimination or harassment, on company policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment, and on the internal complaint procedures available to employees in the event of inappropriate conduct.