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Hart v. J. T. Baker Chemical Co.

decided: May 14, 1979.

KATHLEEN T. HART, APPELLANT
v.
J. T. BAKER CHEMICAL COMPANY



ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY (D.C. Civil No. 76-846)

Before Aldisert, Adams and Higginbotham, Circuit Judges.

Author: Higginbotham

Opinion OF THE COURT

At issue in this appeal is whether the time limits for the filing of a charge under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964*fn1 are jurisdictional or whether they are subject to equitable tolling. We hold that the time limits are not jurisdictional but are subject to tolling. We affirm, however, the lower court's refusal to toll the time period under the facts of this case.

I.

The plaintiff, Kathleen T. Hart, a biochemist, was hired by the defendant, J. T. Baker Chemical Company, in January, 1973 and discharged on July 29, 1973.*fn2 In December, 1973, while seeking employment elsewhere, the plaintiff alleged she first discovered that her discharge by the defendant may have been based upon the fact that she was a woman.*fn3

Her first contact with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was by letter dated September 22, 1974, 421 days after her discharge. On November 17, 1974, she filed a formal charge with the EEOC. This was referred by the EEOC to the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights on May 27, 1975. On June 5, 1975, the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights waived jurisdiction over the charge to the EEOC which issued a "right to sue" letter on March 6, 1976.

On May 10, 1976, Hart filed a Pro se complaint with the district court charging the defendant with violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.*fn4 Specifically, she alleged that the defendant discharged her and gave her adverse employment references because of her gender. In addition, her amended complaint filed on September 27, 1976 set forth a second count alleging interference with her "prospective economic advantage and contractual relations with prospective employers." Amended Complaint P 1.

On July 22, 1976, the defendant moved to dismiss the complaint contending that the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction under Title VII because Hart failed to file a timely charge with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights or with the EEOC. The district court denied the motion without prejudice noting that the motion could be renewed following discovery.

Following the completion of discovery, the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment which was granted in its favor with regard to Hart's claims alleging discriminatory adverse references and refusal to rehire. The district court, applying principles of equitable tolling to the time limitation in Title VII and further finding that a 300-day, rather than 180-day time period applied to the filing of Hart's charge with the EEOC, denied the motion for summary judgment as to the alleged discriminatory discharge.

The defendant then filed a motion for reconsideration of the partial denial of summary judgment. The district court vacated its earlier ruling and entered summary judgment in favor of the defendant. The district court held that Title VII's filing requirements may under certain circumstances be subject to equitable tolling, but, on the facts of this case, declined to invoke its equitable discretion and toll the filing requirements. The court held further that the date of her discharge triggered the running of the limitations period. Because she failed to file her charge with the EEOC within 180 days of her discharge, her untimely filing left the district court without subject-matter jurisdiction over all claims in the complaint.

Hart contends that the time limitation should be tolled from the date of her discharge, July 29, 1973, until December, 1973, the time when she was advised by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Employment Security that J. T. Baker had given an allegedly discriminating reference. We are thus asked to hold that the time limits for the filing of a charge are subject to tolling and that the facts of this case provide a basis for tolling. Assuming we so hold, the plaintiff next asks us to hold the extended 300-day filing period applicable, thus making her filing of September 22, 1974 timely.

II.

The first issue we address is whether the filing of a charge of employment discrimination within the 180-day period provided for in Title VII is "jurisdictional" in that failure to comply is an absolute bar to bringing an action or whether the time limitation is more analogous to a statute of limitations and therefore subject to equitable modifications, such as tolling. Defendant relies on a number of cases which state that timely filing is a "jurisdictional prerequisite" to maintaining an action. The question whether the filing requirement is jurisdictional is still open in this circuit. Stuppiello v. ITT Avionics Division, 575 F.2d 430, 432 n. 4 (3d Cir. 1978). Upon consideration of the cases and the underlying beneficent purposes of the statute, we are convinced that failure to file a ...


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