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EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION v. COMMERCIAL OFFICE PRODUCTS CO.

decided: May 16, 1988.

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION
v.
COMMERCIAL OFFICE PRODUCTS CO.



CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT.

Marshall, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II-A, and III, in which Brennan, White, Blackmun, and O'connor, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Parts II-B and II-C, in which Brennan, White, and Blackmun, JJ., joined. O'connor, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 125. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Scalia, J., joined, post, p. 126. Kennedy, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Author: Marshall

[ 486 U.S. Page 109]

 JUSTICE MARSHALL announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II-A, and III, and an opinion with respect to Parts II-B and II-C, in which JUSTICE BRENNAN, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE BLACKMUN joined.

This case raises two questions regarding the time limits for filing charges of employment discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 253, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e et seq. The primary question presented is whether a state agency's decision to waive its exclusive 60-day period for initial processing of a discrimination charge, pursuant to a worksharing agreement with the EEOC, "terminates" the

[ 486 U.S. Page 110]

     agency's proceedings within the meaning of § 706(c) of Title VII, 78 Stat. 260, as amended in 1972, 86 Stat. 104, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-5(c), so that the EEOC immediately may deem the charge filed. In addition, we must decide whether a complainant who files a discrimination charge that is untimely under state law is nonetheless entitled to the extended 300-day federal filing period of § 706(e) of Title VII, 78 Stat. 260, as amended in 1972, 86 Stat. 105, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-5(e).

I

The time limit provisions of Title VII as interpreted by this Court establish the following procedures for filing discrimination charges with the EEOC. As a general rule, a complainant must file a discrimination charge with the EEOC within 180 days of the occurrence of the alleged unlawful employment practice. § 706(e), 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-5(e).*fn1 If a complainant initially institutes proceedings with a state or local agency with authority to grant or seek relief from the practice charged, the time limit for filing with the EEOC is extended to 300 days. Ibid.

In order to give States and localities an opportunity to combat discrimination free from premature federal intervention,

[ 486 U.S. Page 111]

     the Act provides that no charge may be filed with the EEOC until 60 days have elapsed from initial filing of the charge with an authorized state or local agency, unless that agency's proceedings "have been earlier terminated." § 706(c), 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-5(c).*fn2 The EEOC's referral of a charge initially filed with the EEOC to the appropriate state or local agency properly institutes the agency's proceedings within the meaning of the Act, and the EEOC may hold the charge in "'suspended animation'" during the agency's 60-day period of exclusive jurisdiction. Love v. Pullman Co., 404 U.S. 522, 525-526 (1972). In light of the 60-day deferral period, a complainant must file a charge with the appropriate state or local agency, or have the EEOC refer the charge to that agency, within 240 days of the alleged discriminatory event in order to ensure that it may be filed with the EEOC within the 300-day limit. See Mohasco Corp. v. Silver, 447 U.S. 807, 814, n. 16 (1980). If the complainant does not file within 240 days, the charge still may be timely filed with the

[ 486 U.S. Page 112]

     EEOC if the state or local agency terminates its proceedings before 300 days. See ibid.

The central question in this case is whether a state agency's waiver of the 60-day deferral period, pursuant to a worksharing agreement with the EEOC, constitutes a "termination" of its proceedings so as to permit the EEOC to deem a charge filed and to begin to process it immediately. This question is of substantial importance because the EEOC has used its statutory authority to enter into worksharing agreements with approximately three-quarters of the 109 state and local agencies authorized to enforce state and local employment discrimination laws. See § 709(b), 86 Stat. 107-108, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-8(b) (authorizing the EEOC to "enter into written agreements" with state and local agencies to promote "effective enforcement" of the Act); Brief for Petitioner 4 (EEOC has entered into worksharing agreements with approximately 81 of 109 authorized state and local agencies).

These worksharing agreements typically provide that the state or local agency will process certain categories of charges and that the EEOC will process others, with the state or local agency waiving the 60-day deferral period in the latter instance. See, e. g., Worksharing Agreement between Colorado Civil Rights Division and EEOC, App. to Pet. for Cert. 48a-49a. In either instance, the nonprocessing party to the worksharing agreement generally reserves the right to review the initial processing party's resolution of the charge and to investigate the charge further after the initial processing party has completed its proceedings. See, e. g., id., at 47a. Whether a waiver of the 60-day deferral period pursuant to a worksharing agreement constitutes a "termination" of a state or local agency's proceedings will determine not only when the EEOC may initiate its proceedings, but also whether an entire class of charges may be timely filed with the EEOC in the first instance.

The facts of the instant case concretely reflect what is at stake. On March 26, 1984, Suanne Leerssen filed a charge of

[ 486 U.S. Page 113]

     discrimination with petitioner EEOC. She alleged that 290 days earlier, respondent Commercial Office Products Company had discharged her because of her sex in violation of Title VII. On March 30, the EEOC sent a copy of Leerssen's charge and a charge transmittal form to the Colorado Civil Rights Division (CCRD), which is authorized by the State to process charges of employment discrimination. The form stated that the EEOC would initially process the charge, pursuant to the worksharing agreement between the EEOC and the CCRD.

The CCRD returned the transmittal form to the EEOC, indicating on the form that the CCRD waived its right under Title VII to initially process the charge. On April 4, the CCRD sent a form letter to Leerssen explaining that it had waived its right to initial processing but stating that it still retained jurisdiction to act on the charge after the conclusion of the EEOC's proceedings. If the CCRD's waiver "terminated" its proceedings, then Leerssen's charge was filed with the EEOC just under the 300-day limit. If the waiver was not a "termination," however, then the charge was not timely filed with the EEOC because the 60-day deferral period did not expire until well after the 300-day limit.

The timeliness issue was raised in this case when the EEOC issued an administrative subpoena for information relevant to Leerssen's charge. Respondent refused to comply with the subpoena, maintaining that the EEOC lacked jurisdiction to investigate the charge because it was not timely filed. The EEOC commenced an action in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado seeking judicial enforcement of the subpoena. The District Court agreed with respondent and dismissed the EEOC's enforcement action, holding that the EEOC lacked jurisdiction over Leerssen's charge because it was not timely filed. See Civil Action No. 85-K-1385 (June 6, 1985), App. to Pet. for Cert. 23a.

The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed. 803 F.2d 581 (1986). As a threshold matter, the Court of Appeals

[ 486 U.S. Page 114]

     rejected respondent's contention that the extended 300-day federal filing period was inapplicable because Leerssen had failed to file her charge with the CCRD within the State's own 180-day limitations period. Id., at 585-586, and n. 3. The Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court, however, that Leerssen's charge was not filed within the 300-day period and that the EEOC therefore lacked jurisdiction over the charge. The Court of Appeals reasoned that a state agency "terminates" its proceedings within the meaning of § 706(c) only when it "completely surrenders its jurisdiction over a charge." Id., at 587. Because the CCRD retained jurisdiction over Leerssen's charge, reserving the right to act at the conclusion of the EEOC's proceedings, it did not "finally and unequivocally terminate its authority" over the charge as the plain language of the statute required. Id., at 590. The Court of Appeals expressly disagreed with the decision of the First Circuit in Isaac v. Harvard University, 769 F.2d 817 (1985). The First Circuit had upheld the EEOC's view that a waiver of the right to initially process a charge constitutes a ...


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