U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Furloughed Federal Employee

When an employer violates your rights, knowing what to do or where to turn can be difficult. It is crucial to seek legal help as soon as possible because of strict filing deadlines under federal and New Jersey employment laws. Missing a filing date can result in delays at best, or a refusal to hear your case at worst. Most employment laws give employees at least six months to submit a claim alleging unlawful employment practices. The time to file an appeal is often much less than the time to file an initial complaint. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a federal government employee who missed a deadline to appeal a decision rejecting his claim for unpaid wages. The decision in Harrow v. Department of Defense makes an exception to employment law’s stringent filing deadlines.

Lawsuits are subject to a filing deadline known as the statute of limitations, which requires plaintiffs to file suit within a limited time after the event that led to the dispute. Employment law often involves administrative agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (DCR). Before filing a lawsuit alleging certain employment law violations, you must file a charge with the EEOC or a complaint with the DCR.

The deadline to file a DCR complaint is 180 days from the date of the alleged employment law violation. For discrimination charges filed with the EEOC, the deadline is also 180 days unless a state agency also enforces a state law against the same type of discrimination. The EEOC’s filing deadline is 300 days in that situation. An additional deadline applies once these agencies have completed their investigations. If the EEOC issues a “right to sue” letter, for example, you have sixty days to file suit in federal court.

The question before the Supreme Court in Harrow was whether the filing deadline at issue was a “jurisdictional deadline.” The court has held that certain deadlines, especially those set by statute, are necessary to give a court or agency jurisdiction over a case. In a 2007 decision, Bowles v. Russell, the court held that a filing deadline for appealing a federal district court decision to a Circuit Court of Appeals is jurisdictional. When the appellant missed the deadline, the appellate court no longer had jurisdiction.

Harrow involved a federal employee who was furloughed for six days during a government shutdown in 2013. He filed a complaint with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), an independent federal agency. The MSPB did not rule on the complaint for five years but eventually denied his claim.

Under federal law, he had sixty days from the date of the MSPB’s decision to appeal to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. He did not learn of the decision, however, until after the sixty-day period had passed. The Federal Circuit denied his appeal as untimely, and he appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the sixty-day deadline to appeal an MSPB decision is not jurisdictional. It found nothing in the statute indicating that the deadline was a jurisdictional requirement. It also noted that procedural rules are often subject to equitable exceptions. It remanded the case to the Federal Circuit to determine whether the MSPB’s five-year delay merits “equitable tolling” of the deadline.

The knowledgeable and experienced employment lawyers at the Resnick Law Group represent employees in New Jersey and New York. Please contact us today at 973-781-1204, at 646-867-7997, or online to schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you assert your rights.

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