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Case Bulletin – Equitable tolling not available to Plaintiff for “inexcusable neglect” in failing to properly file with PHRC

In Sule v. Robert J. Echenberg M.D., et al, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that equitable tolling was not available to the plaintiff for “inexcusable neglect” in failing to timely file a claim under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.  The Plaintiff, Melissa Sule, was a medical receptionist who alleges that she was diagnosed with a medical condition in January 2013 which required medical leave and surgery.  She further alleged that she informed the employer of the condition and the need for leave, as well as the need for reasonable accommodation on when she returned to work.  She alleged that the employer terminated her employment on March 23, 2013 claiming the employer no longer needed her.  In June 2013, she contacted the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) regarding a claim of disability discrimination and received a claim number.  In a June 2013 letter, the PHRC investigator enclosed a copy of the complaint for her signature and requested her to sign the complaint within two weeks or the PHRC would presume that she was no longer interested in pursuing a claim.  Plaintiff failed to respond.  On August 5, 2013, the investigator sent another letter stating that if the complaint were not returned by August 19, 2013, the claim would be submitted for suspension of processing.  On October 17, 2013, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC asserting the same claims of disability as were previously asserted in her June 2013 PHRC claim.  The charge was dual-filed with the PHRC.  In November 2014, Plaintiff filed a complaint in the court of common pleas for disability discrimination.  The employer filed a motion for summary judgment alleging that Plaintiff failed to file a timely complaint with the PHRC and therefore failed to exhaust her administrative remedies.  The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment and Plaintiff appealed.

 

On appeal, Plaintiff argued that she satisfied the filing requirements of the PA Human Relations Act by filing a charge of discrimination with the EEOC that was jointly filed with the PHRC, and that more than one year had elapsed since the filing of the charge with the EEOC.  The employer contended that Plaintiff failed to exhaust administrative remedies since the charge of discrimination was filed outside of the 180-day time limit.  180 days from March 23, 2013 was September 19, 2013.

Plaintiff admitted that her EEOC filing was outside of the 180-day time limit, but argued that the filing date should be considered to be the June 2013 date of the initial charge which was not verified or returned.  The Superior Court found that because Plaintiff failed to sign and return the June 2013 charge, the PHRC had no complaint to enter onto its docket, and no authority to begin an investigation.  The court was further reluctant to utilize the doctrine of equitable tolling due to the “inexcusable neglect” of Plaintiff.  The court held that Plaintiff’s claims were time-barred and that the court had no jurisdiction because Plaintiff failed to exhaust her administrative remedies.