Lawyers are sometimes faulted for being overly detailed and “picky.” Maybe so, but sometimes attention to detail can be important! A good example is the recent court of appeal decision entitled Hall v. Goodwill Industries of Southern California, decided this past March 16, 2011. In that case, Hall was terminated from his job at Goodwill and filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) which issued a “right to sue” letter on December 24, 2004. Mr. Hall received the notice on December 31, one week later. After filing his DFEH complaint he spoke with a co-worker’s attorney but did not immediately retain her. Many months later, he did retain the attorney to represent him in litigation against Goodwill and the lawsuit was filed December 30, 2005, six days after the one-year anniversary of the issuance of the right to sue letter but one day prior to the one-year anniversary of his receipt of the notice.
Goodwill filed a motion for summary judgment alleging that the lawsuit was filed too late. Government Code section 12965(b) provides that a lawsuit must be filed “within one year from the date” of the right to sue letter. The trial court denied the motion and Goodwill took the matter up on appeal and prevailed. The court of appeal held that the clear language of section 12965(b) dictates a legislative intent that the act triggering the statute of limitations is the issuance of the right to sue letter, not its receipt by the complainant. The court noted that earlier language of the statute, did key the running of the limitations period to the date of receipt. However, the statute had been changed by the legislature to include the current language, making it clear to the court that the legislature intended the triggering event to be the issuance date, not the receipt date.
The appellate court contrasted the California statute with the language of Title VII of the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Act, which clearly provides that the time to file a lawsuit after receipt of a notice from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) runs from the date of the employee’s receipt, not from the date of the letter’s issuance by the EEOC.
Years ago, while still a young attorney, I learned from a more senior practitioner that one should never forget to check small details like this as they may provide an early and quick basis to dispose of a claim. Such was the case here. Mr. Hall’s delinquent filing of his lawsuit, while only six days too late, was enough to doom his lawsuit. The court of appeal directed that the lawsuit be dismissed for having been untimely filed.