Baldwin County Welcome Center v. Brown
466 U.S. 147 (1984)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Baldwin County Welcome Center v. Brown, 466 U.S. 147 (1984)

Baldwin County Welcome Center v. Brown

No. 83-181

Decided April 16, 1984

466 U.S. 147

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

After respondent filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging discriminatory treatment by her former employer (petitioner), she received a right-to-sue letter from the Commission in January, 1981, informing her that she could commence a civil action in Federal District Court and that, if she chose to do so, the suit must be filed within 90 days of receipt of the letter. Respondent mailed the letter to the District Court, where it was received in March. In addition, she requested appointment of counsel. In April, a Magistrate entered an order requiring that respondent's request for appointment of counsel be made by use of the court's motion form and supporting questionnaire, and reminding her that a complaint must be filed within 90 days of the issuance of the right-to-sue letter. The questionnaire was not returned until the 96th day after receipt of the right-to-sue letter, and on the next day, the Magistrate denied, as untimely, the motion for appointment of counsel, but referred to the District Judge the question whether the filing of the right-to-sue letter with the court constituted commencement of an action under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The court held that respondent forfeited her right to pursue her claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because of her failure to file a proper complaint within 90 days of receipt of the right-to-sue letter, as required by the Act. The Court of Appeals reversed.

Held: There is no basis for giving Title VII actions a special status under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, as the Court of Appeals apparently did. Rule 3 states that an action "is commenced by filing a complaint with the court," and Rule 8(a)(2) provides that a complaint must include "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." The Court of Appeals suggested no persuasive justification for its view that the Federal Rules were to have a different meaning in, or were not to apply to, Title VII litigation. Nor is there any basis for the Court of Appeals' apparent alternative holding that the statutory 90-day period for invoking the court's jurisdiction is "tolled" by the filing of the right-to-sue letter. The record does not support application of the doctrine of equitable tolling.

Certiorari granted; 698 F.2d 1236, reversed.

Page 466 U. S. 148

PER CURIAM.

On November 6, 1979, respondent Celinda Brown filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging discriminatory treatment by her former employer, petitioner Baldwin County Welcome Center (Welcome Center). A notice of right to sue was issued to her on January 27, 1981. It stated that, if Brown chose to commence a civil action "such suit must be filed in the appropriate United States District Court within ninety days of [her] receipt of this Notice." [Footnote 1] Later, Brown mailed the notice to the United States District Court, where it was received on March 17, 1981. [Footnote 2] In addition, she requested appointment of counsel.

On April 15, 1981, a United States Magistrate entered an order requiring that Brown make application for court-appointed counsel using the District Court's motion form and supporting questionnaire. The Magistrate's order to Brown reminded her of the necessity of filing a complaint within 90 days of the issuance of the right-to-sue letter. The questionnaire was not returned until May 6, 1981, the 96th day after receipt of the letter. The next day, the Magistrate denied Brown's motion for appointment of counsel because she had not timely complied with his orders, but he referred to the District Judge the question whether the filing of the right-to-sue letter with the court constituted commencement of an action within the meaning of Rule 3 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. On June 9, 1981, the 130th day after receipt of the right-to-sue letter, Brown filed an "amended complaint," which was served on June 18.

On December 24, 1981, the District Court held that Brown had forfeited her right to pursue her claim under Title VII of

Page 466 U. S. 149

the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because of her failure to file a complaint meeting the requirements of Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure within 90 days of her receipt of the right-to-sue letter. It noted that the right-to-sue letter did not qualify as a complaint under Rule 8 because there was no statement in the letter of the factual basis for the claim of discrimination, which is required by the Rule.

The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding that the filing of a right-to-sue letter "tolls" the time period provided by Title VII. Judgment order reported at 698 F.2d 1236 (1983). Although conceding that its interpretation was "generous," the court stated that "[t]he remedial nature of the statute requires such an interpretation." The court then stated that the filing of the right-to-sue letter "satisfied the ninety day statutory limitation."

The Welcome Center petitioned for a writ of certiorari from this Court. We grant the petition and reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

The section of Title VII at issue here states that, within 90 days after the issuance of a right-to-sue letter "a civil action may be brought against the respondent named, in the charge." 86 Stat. 106, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(1). Rule 3 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states that "[a] civil action is commenced by filing a complaint with the court." A complaint must contain, inter alia, "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 8(a)(2). The District Court held that the right-to-sue letter did not satisfy that standard. The Court of Appeals did not expressly disagree, but nevertheless stated that the 90-day statutory period for invoking the court's jurisdiction was satisfied, apparently concluding that the policies behind Title VII mandate a different definition of when an action is "commenced." [Footnote 3] However, it identified

Page 466 U. S. 150

no basis in the statute or its legislative history, cited no decision of this Court, and suggested no persuasive justification for its view that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were to have a different meaning in, or were not to apply to, Title VII litigation. Because we also can find no satisfactory basis for giving Title VII actions a special status under the Rules of Civil Procedure, we must disagree with the conclusion of the Court of Appeals. [Footnote 4]

With respect to its apparent alternative holding that the statutory period for invoking the court's jurisdiction is "tolled" by the filing of the right-to-sue letter, the Court of

Page 466 U. S. 151

Appeals cited no principle of equity to support its conclusion. [Footnote 5] Brown does little better, relying only on her asserted "diligent efforts." Nor do we find anything in the record to call for the application of the doctrine of equitable tolling.

The right-to-sue letter itself stated that Brown had the right to sue within 90 days. Also, the District Court informed Brown that

"to be safe, you should file the petition on or before the ninetieth day after the day of the letter from the EEOC informing you of your right to sue."

Finally, the order of April 15 from the Magistrate again reminded Brown of the 90-day limitation.

This is not a case in which a claimant has received inadequate notice, see Gates v. Georgia-Pacific Corp., 492 F.2d 292 (CA9 1974); or where a motion for appointment of counsel is pending and equity would justify tolling the statutory period until the motion is acted upon, see Harris v. Walgreen's Distribution Center, 456 F.2d 588 (CA6 1972); or where the court has led the plaintiff to believe that she had done everything required of her, see Carlile v. South Routt School District RE 3-J, 652 F.2d 981 (CA10 1981). Nor is this a case where affirmative misconduct on the part of a defendant lulled the plaintiff into inaction. See Villasenor v. Lockheed Aircraft Corp., 640 F.2d 207 (CA9 1981); Wilkerson v. Siegfried Insurance Agency, Inc., 621 F.2d 1042 (CA10 1980); Leake v. University of Cincinnati, 605 F.2d 255 (CA6 1979). The simple fact is that Brown was told three times what she must do to preserve her claim, and she did not do it. One who fails to act diligently cannot invoke equitable principles to excuse that lack of diligence.

Brown also contends that the doctrine of equitable tolling should apply because the Welcome Center has not demonstrated that it was prejudiced by her failure to comply with

Page 466 U. S. 152

the Rules. [Footnote 6] This argument is unavailing. Although absence of prejudice is a factor to be considered in determining whether the doctrine of equitable tolling should apply once a factor that might justify such tolling is identified, it is not an independent basis for invoking the doctrine and sanctioning deviations from established procedures.

Procedural requirements established by Congress for gaining access to the federal courts are not to be disregarded by courts out of a vague sympathy for particular litigants. As we stated in Mohasco Corp. v. Silver,447 U. S. 807, 447 U. S. 826 (1980),

"in the long run, experience teaches that strict adherence to the procedural requirements specified by the legislature is the best guarantee of evenhanded administration of the law."

The petition for certiorari is granted, respondent's motion to proceed in forma pauperis is granted, and the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.

It is so ordered.

[Footnote 1]

The presumed date of receipt of the notice was January 30, 1981. Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 6(e).

[Footnote 2]

Brown mailed the letter to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. The case was transferred to the Southern District of Alabama, however, because the events giving rise to the charge had occurred there.

[Footnote 3]

Neither the parties nor the courts below addressed the application of Rule 15(c) to the "amended complaint" filed on June 9. That Rule provides that amendment of a pleading "relates back" to the date of the original pleading. We do not believe that Rule 15(c) is applicable to this situation. The rationale of Rule 15(c) is that a party who has been notified of litigation concerning a particular occurrence has been given all the notice that statutes of limitations were intended to provide. 3 J. Moore, Moore's Federal Practice

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