The Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal recently ruled that the statute of limitations under Louisiana’s anti-discrimination law is only tolled during the pendency of an administrative or investigative review, not to exceed 18 months. According to the First Circuit, in the case of Briggs v. Florida Parishes Juvenile Justice Commission, No. 2017-CA-1189 (March 12, 2018), the employee failed to file suit within the limitations period, and therefore her claims were properly dismissed.

Factual Background

Tammy Briggs, the plaintiff, was hired as a cook at the Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center in 2006. The center terminated her employment on August 19, 2014, allegedly for violating the center’s rules and procedures with respect to removing food items from the center without prior authorization. On June 7, 2015, Briggs filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that her suspension and subsequent discharge were based on racial and gender discrimination. In support of her claims, Briggs alleged that although she, an African-American female, was discharged, a Caucasian male coworker who also removed food items from the center without permission was not discharged.

On August 19, 2015, the EEOC issued a dismissal and notice of rights letter to Briggs, notifying her that it was unable to conclude that a violation had occurred. The EEOC letter also notified Briggs that she had a right to sue within 90 days of receipt of the notice but that “[t]he time limit for filing suit based on a claim under state law may be different.”

Briggs then filed suit against the center and the Florida Parishes Juvenile Justice Commission (together, the defendants) on December 8, 2015, in the 21st Judicial District Court of Louisiana. Briggs alleged that she was discriminated against based on her race and gender in violation of the Louisiana Employment Discrimination Law (LEDL). The defendants moved to dismiss Briggs’s claims on the basis that the prescriptive period had expired. (A prescriptive period is Louisiana’s equivalent of the statute of limitation used in common law jurisdictions.) The defendants alleged that Briggs’s claims were subject to the one-year prescriptive period set forth in Louisiana Revised Statutes Section 23:303(D) and that because the last act of discrimination alleged by Briggs (i.e., the termination) occurred on August 19, 2014, her lawsuit filed in December 2015 was untimely. Briggs countered that the applicable prescriptive period was 18 months pursuant to the case law interpreting the statutory provision.

The trial court granted the defendants’ exception (a type of legal defense) and dismissed Briggs’s claim with prejudice by judgment, dated January 6, 2017. Briggs timely appealed.

The Court’s Decision and Analysis

The issue before the appellate court was whether the trial court had properly interpreted and applied section 303(D) to find that the period for Briggs to bring her claims had expired. On appeal, the First Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision.

In reaching this decision, the court rejected Briggs’s argument that her right to file suit on her claims did not prescribe until 18 months after her discharge. The court held that section 303(D) expressly provides that the one-year prescription period in the LEDL shall be “suspended during the pendency of any administrative review or investigation” (emphasis added). Suspension under Louisiana law is Louisiana’s equivalent of tolling. Suspension merely pauses the running of the prescriptive (limitations) period; prescription starts to run again once the suspension ends. Thus, the court held that section 303(D) merely provides the “maximum” amount of time a plaintiff is afforded to file suit under the LEDL. That maximum time length is allowed only if the precondition for suspension is met—namely, the continued pendency of any administrative or investigative review of a plaintiff’s claims.

In Briggs’s case, the court held that the pendency of the review of her claims by the EEOC ended on August 19, 2015. At that time, the suspension provided in section 303(D) ended and prescription began to run again on Briggs’s claims. The court held that the running of her prescriptive period commenced on August 20, 2014 (the date she was discharged) and was halted on June 7, 2015 (the date when she filed her EEOC claim). The court, therefore, calculated that at the time the prescriptive period was suspended on her claims, Briggs had 73 days remaining on her prescriptive period. The court further held that upon receipt of the EEOC’s dismissal and notice of rights letter on or around August 19, 2015, Briggs had 73 days in which to file suit. Even allowing additional days to account for the actual receipt of the letter, Briggs’s suit, filed on December 8, 2015, was well beyond the 73 days remaining when the suspension ended.

Takeaways

Louisiana’s courts are often hostile to the enforcement of limitations periods, but this Louisiana court was not. The First Circuit’s decision underscores that section 303(D) provides a ceiling, not a floor, for the time allowed to file suit, and only applies when the condition of pendency of an administrative or investigative review is met. Where, as in Briggs, the suspension (the EEOC investigation) ends, the prescriptive period begins to run again. Thus, in each case filed under the LEDL, as a threshold matter, employers may need to confirm the dates of the beginning and end of any applicable administrative or investigative review in order to preserve their right to argue that a plaintiff’s claims have prescribed. In Louisiana, as in other jurisdictions, a defendant must assert the fact that a plaintiff’s claims have expired to avoid waiving the prescription defense.