Edelman v. Lynchburg College
Annotate this Case
535 U.S. 106 (2002)
OCTOBER TERM, 2001
EDELMAN v. LYNCHBURG COLLEGE
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
No. 00-1072. Argued January 8, 2002-Decided March 19,2002
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that a "charge" of employment discrimination be filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission "within [a specified number of] days after the alleged unlawful ... practice occurred," § 706(e)(1), and that the charge "be in writing under oath or affirmation," § 706(b). An EEOC regulation permits an otherwise timely filer to verify a charge after the time for filing has expired. After respondent Lynchburg College denied academic tenure to petitioner Edelman, he faxed a letter to the EEOC in November 1997, claiming that the College had subjected him to genderbased, national origin, and religious discrimination. Edelman made no oath or affirmation. The EEOC advised him to file a charge within the applicable 300-day time limit and sent him a Form 5 Charge of Discrimination, which he returned 313 days after he was denied tenure. Edelman subsequently sued in a Virginia state court on various state-law claims, but later added a Title VII cause of action. The College then removed the case to federal court and moved to dismiss, claiming that Edelman's failure to file the verified Form 5 with the EEOC within the applicable filing period was a bar to subject-matter jurisdiction. Edelman replied that his November 1997 letter was a timely filed charge and that under the EEOC regulation, the Form 5 verification related back to the letter. The District Court dismissed the Title VII complaint, finding that the letter was not a "charge" under Title VII because neither Edelman nor the EEOC treated it as one. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that Title VII's plain language foreclosed the relationback regulation. The court reasoned that, because a charge requires verification and must be filed within the limitations period, it follows that a charge must be verified within that period.
Held: The EEOC's relation-back regulation is an unassailable interpretation of § 706. Pp. 112-119.
(a) There is nothing plain in reading "charge" to require an oath by definition. Title VII nowhere defines "charge." Section 706(b) merely requires that a charge be verified, without saying when; § 706(e)(1) provides that a charge must be filed within a given period, without indicating whether it must be verified when filed. Neither provision incorporates the other so as to give a definition by necessary implication.
The Fourth Circuit's assumption that §§ 706(b) and (e)(1) must be read as one, with "charge" defined as "under oath or affirmation," was a doubtful structural and logical leap. Nor is the gap bridged by the commonsense rule that statutes are to be read as a whole, see United States v. Morton, 467 U. S. 822, 828, for the two quite different objectives of the timing and verification requirements prevent reading "charge" to subsume them both by definition. The time limitation is meant to encourage a potential charging party to raise a discrimination claim before it gets stale, while the verification requirement is intended to protect employers from the disruption and expense of responding to a claim unless a complainant is serious enough and sure enough to support it by oath subject to liability for perjury. The latter object, however, demands an oath only by the time the employer is obliged to respond to the charge, not at the time an employee files it with the EEOC. The statute is thus open to interpretation and the regulation addresses a legitimate question. Pp. 112-113.
(b) The College's argument that the regulation addressed a substantive issue over which the EEOC has no rulemaking power is simply a recast of the plain language argument just rejected. Moreover, there is no need to resolve the degree of deference reviewing courts owe the regulation because this Court finds that the rule is not only reasonable, but states the position the Court would adopt were it interpreting the statute from scratch. Pp. 113-114.
(c) Although the verification provision is meant to forestall catchpenny claims of disgruntled but not necessarily aggrieved employees, Congress presumably did not mean to affect Title VII's nature as a remedial scheme in which laypersons, rather than lawyers, are expected to initiate the process, see, e. g., EEOC v. Commercial Office Products Co., 486 U. S. 107, 124. Construing § 706 to permit the relation back of an oath omitted from an original filing ensures that the lay complainant, who may not know enough to verify on filing, will not risk forfeiting his rights inadvertently. At the same time, the EEOC looks out for the employer's interest by refusing to call for any response to an otherwise sufficient complaint until the verification has been supplied. This Court would be hard pressed to take issue with the EEOC's position after deciding, in Becker v. Montgomery, 532 U. S. 757,765, that a failure to comply with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure l1's signature requirement did not require dismissal of a timely filed but unsigned notice of appeal because nothing prevented later cure of the signature defect. There is no reason to think that relation back of the oath here is any less reasonable than relation back of the signature in Becker. In fact, it would be passing strange to disagree with the EEOC even without Becker, for a long history of judicial practice with oath
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