Dear Superintendent:

In Texas, an employee must file a charge of discrimination with either the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Texas Workforce Commission within 180 days. If the employee files with the Texas Workforce Commission within 180 days, then the time to file with the EEOC is extended to within 300 days of the discriminatory act or 30 days of the termination of the state proceedings, whichever is earlier. Courts have inconsistently applied a continuing violation theory as an equitable exception to these limitations, allowing employees to claim that subsequent wrongful acts that repeat or reinforce an earlier wrong effectively extend the relatively short limitations period. On May 29, 2007, the United States Supreme Court in Ledbetter v. The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, Inc., issued an opinion that appears to create a bright line interpretation of the time for an employee to file an EEOC complaint.

In the Ledbetter case, the employee claimed she was given poor evaluations because of her sex, which resulted in lower pay. The employee failed to file a complaint within 180 days of her initial evaluation and pay decisions. By the end of her employment, she was earning significantly less than her male colleagues. The employee claimed each paycheck that was low as a result of the previous discrimination was a separate act of discrimination. The issue before the Supreme Court was whether a plaintiff could bring an action under Title VII alleging illegal pay discrimination when the disparate pay was received during the statutory limitations period, but was the result of intentionally discriminatory pay decisions that occurred outside the limitations period.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that the EEOC charging period is triggered when a discrete unlawful practice takes place. A new violation does not occur, and a new charging period does not commence, upon the occurrence of subsequent nondiscriminatory acts that entail adverse effects resulting from the past discrimination. A discrete act is a separate actionable unlawful employment practice. Examples include termination, failure to promote, denial of transfer or refusal to hire. The Court majority implies that you cannot use a past discrete act of discrimination to bolster a claim that occurs within 180 days of filing an EEOC charge. For example, a discriminatory act that occurred 20 years ago could not be used to support a discriminatory act that just occurred.

The Court did not consider the Ledbetter case a claim for “hostile work environment.” Accordingly, the Court did not impose a bright line rule for “hostile work environment” claims. A “hostile work environment” claim typically compromises a succession of harassing acts, each of which may not be actionable on its own.

Recent Attorney General Opinions and Fifth Circuit cases (i.e., state-created danger) have yielded uncertainty, leaving school officials to wonder how plaintiffs’ lawyers will seek to increase school liability. In contrast, the Ledbetter case seems to add some level of certainty to employer-employee relations, and leaves the difficult policy issue of whether 180 days is sufficient time for raising grievances for the Congress to resolve.

As your employment situations are fact-specific, you should carefully evaluate your employment issues before taking action. If you have specific questions regarding the implication of this decision, please feel free to give me a call.

As always, you may view this letter and other current law issues on our website.