Seyfarth Synopsis: The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held for the first time that the continuing violation doctrine applies even when a plaintiff was subject to harassment that was severe enough to put the employee on notice of the duty to file a complaint. The lower court will now consider conduct many years outside of the 300-day limitations period under Title VII. This decision alters prior Circuit precedent, widens the reach of the continuing violation doctrine, and serves as warning for HR professionals and litigation counsel.

Unlike discrete acts of retaliation or discrimination, conduct that may support a hostile work environment claim often occurs over a period of time and cannot be said to occur on any particular day. Because of this difference, most courts have long recognized the “continuing violation doctrine,” which essentially says that as long as one harassing act occurs within the filing period, the entire time period of the hostile work environment may be considered by the court for the purpose of determining liability.

In Panagiota Heath v. Southern University System Fdn. et al., a university professor (Heath) alleged that she was subject to ongoing harassment because of her sex by her immediate supervisor as far back as 2003. The alleged harassment included having her re-write exams, coercing students to make complaints against her, denying her request for a sabbatical, telling her that he did not believe she was capable of writing a book, and excluding her from meetings because she talked “too much for a woman.” Heath initially filed a lawsuit in Louisiana state court in 2009 alleging sex discrimination, but the suit was dismissed when she stopped pursuing it. She then took a sabbatical in 2010-2011 for job-related stress, but alleged that the harassment continued after she returned to work, including being subject to belittling comments and intimidating conduct from her supervisor. More than 200 students signed a petition asking for Heath to be changed to a “non-hostile” and “non-harassing” work environment. Heath complained about the conduct in 2009 and 2012. But there was no indication that the University responded. In early 2013, she filed a charge with the EEOC and eventually filed her second lawsuit.

The district court granted summary judgment to Southern University on Heath’s hostile work environment claim, holding that she could not rely on any conduct that occurred outside of the limitations period (300 days before filing her EEOC charge) and that the conduct inside the limitations period was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to establish a claim. The district court relied on the Fifth Circuit’s Celestine v. Petroleos de Venezuella (Celestine I) decision from 2001, which addressed the continuing violation doctrine and required courts to consider numerous related factors, including whether “the act has the degree of permanence which should trigger an employee’s awareness of and duty to assert his or her rights.” Under Celestine I, if the harassing conduct was sufficiently severe to put the employee on notice of the need to file a complaint, the employee typically could not rely on the continuing violation doctrine. Rather than wait until 2013, the district court found that Heath should have filed a claim in 2011 when the harassment continued after her sabbatical.

The Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded, acknowledging for the first time that the Supreme Court’s 2002 National R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan decision overruled Celestine I to the extent that the Fifth Circuit and other Circuits held that “the plaintiff may not base a suit on individual acts that occurred outside the statute of limitations unless it would have been unreasonable to expect the plaintiff to sue before the statute ran on such conduct.” Thus, at least in the Fifth Circuit, the date on which a plaintiff becomes aware that he or she has an actionable Title VII claim is no longer relevant. Nevertheless, courts are left with other factors to consider in deciding whether apply the continuing violation doctrine, including (1) whether the separate acts are related, (2) whether any intervening acts by the employer “severed” the acts that preceded it from later conduct, and (3) whether there are any equitable factors that should prevent the court from considering the full scope of the continuing conduct. Based on these other factors, the Fifth Circuit found that Heath had properly alleged a continuing violation and remanded for a determination about whether the claim relating to conduct since 2011 could survive summary judgment.

The case is a cautionary tale for HR professionals and litigation counsel, and a reminder that over-reliance on the statute of limitations in hostile work environment claims is not an ideal tactic. Because stale internal complaints and allegations going back many years can be revived in subsequent litigation, HR professionals and employment counsel should take care to always accurately and thoroughly document employee complaints and related investigations, take prompt and effective remedial action when appropriate, follow-up with the complainant, and consider what other actions to take in order to “sever” or “break” a possible continuing violation.