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Female managers find ‘courthouse door locked’

A group of female managers who alleged pay discrimination by defendant Dollar Tree Stores Inc. could not save their suit with a claim that their request to amend their complaint tolled the limitations period to file a Title VII claim.

Last week the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the managers missed the 90-day limitation period for filing a Title VII suit after receipt of a right-to-sue letter.

Thirty-four named plaintiffs sued in Alabama federal court in 2008, claiming Dollar Tree paid women less than their male counterparts. When they filed suit, 31 of the plaintiffs had charges pending with the EEOC, and they received right-to-sue letters between Nov. 6, 2008, and April 24, 2009. When the plaintiffs asked to amend their suit 90 days after the first right-to-sue letters were mailed, Dollar Tree objected and argued Virginia was the proper venue for the Title VII claims the plaintiff wanted to add.

On Sept. 30, 2009, the Alabama district court denied the plaintiffs’ first motion to amend as moot and their second motion to amend as futile because of improper venue. The plaintiffs then filed a new Title VII complaint in Norfolk federal court, which the district court dismissed as outside Title VII limitations period.

The managers appealed, arguing their motion for leave to amend equitably tolled the statute of limitations. Equitable tolling did not work in this case, wrote Judge Dennis W. Shedd, as the plaintiffs did not show any “external factors” that hampered their ability to timely file. A panel majority upheld the dismissal.

But the Alabama district judge could not have expected the plaintiffs “would arrive at the Fourth Circuit only to find the courthouse door locked,” said dissenting Judge Andre M. Davis. He also objected to the majority’s characterization of the plaintiffs as failing to take a hint from the Alabama judge about possibly needing to file the Title VII claim where they had proper venue. Davis said the “signaling” by the judge did not have the legal effect of a final decision.

Davis said the majority’s reliance on outside circuit authority compounded the “fundamental injustice.” Denying the plaintiffs their day in court was “unconscionable,” he concluded. The 27-page unpublished opinion is Angles v. Dollar Tree Stores Inc.
–Deborah Elkins

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