DETATA v. ROLLPRINT PACKAGING PRODUCTS (January 12, 2011)
Sherry DeTata had a rather short career at Rollprint Packaging Products. She was fired after only eight days -- allegedly a few days after she complained about sexual harassment. She sought advice from Jewell Bracko, the Director of the American Civil Rights Trust. Although Bracko wrote a letter to Rollprint on her behalf, his role and relationship with DeTata is not clear on the record. In any event, she filed a charge with the EEOC in December of 2008. The agency issued a right to sue letter on March 2, 2009. Although the letter was addressed to DeTata, it was sent to Bracko. DeTata alleges that Bracko never received it. It was returned to the EEOC as undeliverable. When DeTata later called the agency to inquire about her case, she was told that the letter had been issued but was also told that her file had been lost. The EEOC eventually resent the letter on June 18. Of course, the letter stated that she had 90 days after her receipt of the notice to file a lawsuit. She filed her suit pro se on August 18. Rollprint moved to dismiss on the grounds that she did not meet the 90-day requirement. Judge Pallmeyer (N.D. Ill) held an evidentiary hearing. Based on DeTata's testimony that her conversation with the EEOC occurred in April, the district court granted Rollprint's motion. It concluded that the 90-day period began running when she had actual oral notice. DeTata hired an attorney and filed an amended complaint, which was also dismissed. On a motion for reconsideration, she explained that she misspoke when she stated that the call was in April and that it was really in May. The court denied the motion. DeTata Appeals.
In their opinion, Chief Judge Easterbrook and Judges Wood and Evans vacated and remanded. The statute requires the agency to notify a party when it dismisses a discrimination charge but it does not elaborate on either the form or content of that notice. The Court noted that it has consistently held that written notice is required and that the 90-day period does not run until actual receipt of the letter. It also noted, however, that cases from both the 6th and the 11th Circuits held that oral notice was sufficient. In both those cases, the court believed that the plaintiff was at least partially at fault for the delayed actual receipt, which is not the case here. But even if oral notice is sufficient, it must be sufficient notice. The Court held that proper notice must include authorization to institute an action within 90 days and advice regarding the institution of the action, if appropriate. The record does not establish that the oral notice received here met that threshold. Rollprint has the burden to show that the case was filed late -- it has not met that burden. The Court also rejected Rollprint's request to affirm the district court on the grounds that the initial notice sent to Bracko was sufficient. The Court noted that the undisputed facts surrounding that notice were insufficient for it to conclude at this stage that it constituted adequate notice.