A California court has ruled that an African-American employee who alleged that he was racially harassed by white co-workers for almost a decade could proceed with his claim under Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 – despite waiting almost 13 years after the harassment began before filing a suit. Jeffery v. Yellow Transp. Inc., Case No. S-05-2306.

In November 2005, Elbert Jeffery sued in federal district court alleging race discrimination, racial harassment, and retaliation. He claimed that he was compelled to resign from his job with Yellow Transportation in March 2002 because of severe and continuous racial harassment by white co-workers. Jeffrey said he endured almost daily verbal and written racial slurs. According to Jeffrey, his complaints of harassment to management only resulted in more severe and retaliatory harassment.

Yellow Transportation had moved for summary judgment, arguing that Jeffery’s Section 1981 claims were time-barred because he failed to show that an act of racial harassment, discrimination, or retaliation occurred within the applicable statute of limitations. The court denied the motion, however, finding that Jeffery alleged at least one incident – a derogatory remark containing the “n” word written next to Jeffery’s name on a bulletin board – which occurred sometime after November 2001 and thus fell within the four year statute of limitations period. The court found “this evidence is sufficient to trigger the continuing violation doctrine and permit the consideration of earlier, otherwise time-barred acts.” The court stated that “viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Jeffery, his Section 1981 claims are not time-barred because a discriminatory act occurred within the statutory period and that act was part of the same unlawful employment practice giving rise to a single hostile work environment relating back to 1992.”

Yellow Transportation also argued that the equitable doctrine of laches, which prevents a plaintiff from maintaining a legal action if he unreasonably delays in filing suit and the defendant suffers harm as a result, barred Jeffery’s claim. According to the company, it was prejudiced by Jeffrey’s delay because during that delay one alleged harasser and one potential witness died and another alleged harasser and witness left the company. The court, however, found that the drastic remedy of dismissing the suit was not necessary, explaining:

Based on the widespread allegations of harassment…the unavailability of two deceased witnesses (one of whom died in 1992) is relatively insignificant, especially since the deceased harasser was allegedly responsible for a single act of harassment and the deceased witness only observed that act of harassment. Likewise, the court finds that the departure of two witnesses from Yellow’s employ is also relatively insignificant given that there is no evidence to suggest that either witness is unavailable to testify at trial.

However, the court did hold that it could limit Jeffery’s ability to pursue specific harassment claims if witnesses or other key pieces of evidence proved unavailable.

The court’s holding emphasizes the importance of properly investigating an employee’s claims of harassment and taking action to put an end to it. If the employer does not take appropriate action, the “continuing violation” doctrine can result in employees suing for harassment many years after the initial improper conduct occurred