National Railroad Passenger Corporation v. Morgan
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536 U.S. 101 (2002)
OCTOBER TERM, 2001
NATIONAL RAILROAD PASSENGER CORPORATION v. MORGAN
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
No. 00-1614. Argued January 9, 2002-Decided June 10,2002
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a plaintiff "shall" file an employment discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) either 180 or 300 days after an "alleged unlawful employment practice occurred." 42 U. S. C. §2000e-5(e)(1). Respondent Morgan, a black male, filed a charge of discrimination and retaliation with the EEOC against petitioner National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak), and cross-filed with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. He alleged that he had been subjected to discrete discriminatory and retaliatory acts and had experienced a racially hostile work environment throughout his employment. The EEOC issued a "Notice of Right to Sue," and Morgan filed this lawsuit. While some of the allegedly discriminatory acts occurred within 300 days of the time that Morgan filed his EEOC charge, many took place prior to that time period. The District Court granted Amtrak summary judgment in part, holding that the company could not be liable for conduct occurring outside of the 300-day filing period. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that a plaintiff may sue on claims that would ordinarily be time barred so long as they either are "sufficiently related" to incidents that fall within the statutory period or are part of a systematic policy or practice of discrimination that took place, at least in part, within the period.
Held: A Title VII plaintiff raising claims of discrete discriminatory or retaliatory acts must file his charge within the appropriate 180- or 300-day period, but a charge alleging a hostile work environment will not be time barred if all acts constituting the claim are part of the same unlawful practice and at least one act falls within the filing period; in neither instance is a court precluded from applying equitable doctrines that may toll or limit the time period. Pp. 108-122.
(a) Strict adherence to Title VII's timely filing requirements is the best guarantee of evenhanded administration of the law. M ohasco Corp. v. Silver, 447 U. S. 807, 826. In a State having an entity authorized to grant or seek relief with respect to the alleged unlawful practice, an employee who initially files a grievance with that agency must file the charge with the EEOC within 300 days of the employment practice;
102 NATIONAL RAILROAD PASSENGER CORPORATION
in all other States, the charge must be filed within 180 days. § 2000e5(e)(1). The operative statutory terms of § 2000e-5(e)(1), the charge filing provision, are "shall," "after ... occurred," and "unlawful employment practice." "[S]hall" makes the act of filing a charge within the specified time period mandatory. "[O]ccurred" means that the practice took place or happened in the past. The requirement, therefore, that the charge be filed "after" the practice "occurred" means that a litigant has up to 180 or 300 days after the unlawful practice happened to file with the EEOC. The critical questions for both discrete discriminatory acts and hostile work environment claims are: What constitutes an "unlawful employment practice" and when has that practice "occurred"? The answer varies with the practice. Pp. 108-110.
(b) A party must file a charge within either 180 or 300 days of the date that a discrete retaliatory or discriminatory act "occurred" or lose the ability to recover for it. Morgan asserts that the term "practice" provides a statutory basis for the Ninth Circuit's continuing violation doctrine because it connotes an ongoing violation that can endure or recur over a period of time. This argument is unavailing, however, given that § 2000e-2 explains in great detail the sorts of actions that qualify as "[u]nlawful employment practices," including among them numerous discrete acts, without indicating in any way that the term "practice" converts related discrete acts into a single unlawful practice for timely filing purposes. And the Court has repeatedly interpreted the term "practice" to apply to a discrete act of single "occurence," even where it has a connection to other acts. Several principles may be derived from Electrical Workers v. Robbins & Myers, Inc., 429 U. S. 229, 234-235; United Air Lines, Inc. v. Evans, 431 U. S. 553, 558; and Delaware State College v. Ricks, 449 U. S. 250, 257. First, discrete discriminatory acts are not actionable if time barred, even when they are related to acts alleged in timely filed charges. Because each discrete act starts a new clock for filing charges alleging that act, the charge must be filed within the 180- or 300-day period after the act occurred. The existence of past acts and the employee's prior knowledge of their occurrence, however, does not bar employees from filing charges about related discrete acts so long as the acts are independently discriminatory and charges addressing those acts are themselves timely filed. Nor does the statute bar an employee from using the prior acts as background evidence to support a timely claim. In addition, the time period for filing a charge remains subject to application of equitable doctrines such as waiver, estoppel, and tolling. See Zipes v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 455 U. S. 385, 393. While Morgan alleged that he suffered from numerous discriminatory and retaliatory acts from the date he was hired through the date he was fired, only those acts that occurred within the applicable 300-day filing period are actionable.