LEE v. COOK COUNTY (March 22, 2011)

Twelve African-AmericanCook County employees believed that the County discriminated against them on account of their race in making promotions. They filed a charge with the EEOC. The EEOC issued right-to-sue letters in March 2008. The employees brought suit pursuant to Title VII in May of 2008, well within the 90-day window. Judge Castillo (N.D. Ill.) did not think that the twelve plaintiffs belonged in the same suit. So, in a September 18 order, he dismissed the complaint without prejudice and gave each individual plaintiff 40 days within which to file an individual action. But three of the plaintiffs waited over seven months before filing their individual actions. Judge Kendall (N.D. Ill.) and Judge St. Eve (N.D. Ill.) dismissed the individual actions as untimely. Plaintiffs appeal.

In their opinion, Chief Judge Easterbrook and Judges Cudahy and Posner affirmed -- and issued sanctions. The Court first pointed out that there was nothing improper about the original filing. Rule 20 only requires multiple plaintiffs to share a common question of law or fact, which we have here. It does not require that a common question predominate, as do the class action rules. The district court therefore erred when it dismissed the complaint. The plaintiffs should have appealed, but they did not. Instead, the plaintiffs waited several months, refiled, and appeal the dismissal of the refiled complaints. So the Court turned to the merits of the actual appeal and agreed with the district courts that refiled actions were untimely. First, the district court's order directing the plaintiffs to file individual actions within 40 days did not extend the statute of limitations or the EEOC filing window. Second, equitable tolling requires a litigant to pursue his rights diligently. Plaintiffs' lawyer did anything but. Third, the Court rejected plaintiffs' argument that the defendants either waived or waited too long to assert the limitations defense. Having resolved the merits of the case against the plaintiffs, the Court turned to their lawyer. It noted his "calamitous handling" of the case in the district court, the "sloppy performance" in the appellate court, his several procedural gaffes, his failure to file required pleadings, his grossly inadequate response to the Court’s order to show cause, and his numerous violations of the Circuit Rules. The Court reprimanded the attorney, fined him $5000, and ordered him to send a copy of the opinion to his clients.