In Jackson v. City of Cleveland, E2015-01279-COA-R3-CV (filed 8/22/16), the Tennessee Court of Appeals held that a city police officer who worked in that capacity for 11 years before she was terminated could not pursue a sex-discrimination claim against the city, either for her termination or for post-termination retaliation.
This opinion demonstrates the complexities of employment law, and the merits of the employee's claim were not even reached by the Court of Appeals. Instead, the opinion focused on the timing of various claims of discrimination and retaliation made by the employee and whether any of those claims had been filed in a timely way. After an exhaustive analysis, the court held that none of the claims had been timely filed.
The employee was terminated on September 12, 2011. She filed a claim in federal court within one year. In her federal case, she alleged claims for retaliatory and discriminatory conduct against the police department under both federal and state law. However, she eventually moved to drop her federal claims. While the employee asked that the federal court remand her remaining state-law claims to state court (i.e., send them to state court), the federal and court instead dismissed the case, leaving the employee to refile her state-law claims in state court.
Unfortunately for the employee, she waited approximately one year to refile her state-law claims in state court. While this is often acceptable, because the defendant was a governmental entity and the case involved claims that had been dismissed in federal court and were refiled in state court, the refiling in state court was too late under the circumstances of this particular case.
The employee, however, argued that a theory known as the "continuing violation doctrine" saved her claims in state court. Much of the opinion focuses on the application of this doctrine. Under the doctrine, plaintiffs can bring claims for discriminatory conduct that occurred outside the statute of limitations if the conduct is sufficiently related to conduct that occurred inside the statute of limitations. For example, if women have systematically been paid less than men by a certain employer as part of a pattern and practice for many years with no justification for the distinction, and part of the discrimination occurred outside the statute of limitations but part of it occurred inside the statute of limitations, then the continuing violation doctrine allows a plaintiff alleging sex discrimination to bring suit for the entire discriminatory practice, even those instances of unequal pay that occurred outside the statute of limitations. However, there are many nuances to this doctrine, as the plaintiff in Jackson learned.
In Jackson, the only allegedly discriminatory act that occurred within (inside) the statute of limitations was the police department's request that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) investigate certain alleged timesheet irregularities. The court ultimately held that: (1) the plaintiff's termination was a discrete act that occurred outside the statute of limitations and was not subject to the continuing violation doctrine – therefore, any claim for wrongful termination was barred by the statute of limitations; (2) the plaintiff's hostile work environment claim was likewise barred by the statute of limitations because that claim ended when she was terminated, and she was terminated outside the statute of limitations; and (3) the plaintiff's claim for retaliation – based on the police department's request that the TBI investigate the employee – was a discrete act that could not be linked to her termination or other allegations of sex discrimination. The court also held that her claims of negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress and malicious harassment could not survive. Lastly, the court held that the plaintiff had had ample time to develop evidence before the trial court dismissed her lawsuit.
This case demonstrates the complexity of employment law – even when the only issue is when the statute of limitations runs. In Jackson, the employee would not be allowed to get to the merits of her claim because she did not survive the procedural quagmire that she encountered when she dropped her federal claims and elected to pursue her state-law claims in state court.