In a matter of first impression, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit considered whether the statute of limitations applicable to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act could be shortened by an employment contract. In its decision in Logan v MGM Grand Detroit Casino, __ F3d ___ (2019), the federal appellate court held that the contract between the former employee (Plaintiff) and employer (Defendant), which included a six‑month limitations period, could not supersede the statutory limitations period provided in Title VII itself.
As part of the application process, Plaintiff agreed to a six-month limitations period as a condition of employment and waived any statute of limitations longer than that in the contract. After several years of working, Plaintiff resigned “due to discrimination caused by her employer.” 216 days later, Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Defendant. The EEOC investigated her allegation and issued her a right-to-sue letter in November 2015. Subsequently, on February 17, 2016 – 440 days after resigning – Plaintiff sued Defendant for discrimination under Title VII. Her legal action was filed outside the period permitted by her employment contract but arguably within the period permitted under Title VII.
In holding that Title VII’s statute of limitations could not be contractually shortened, the Court of Appeals analyzed both Title VII’s detailed enforcement scheme and the practical problems attached to a contrary holding. First, the court recounted the specific, time‑sensitive complaint process established for complainants seeking relief under Title VII. Notably, the six‑month limitations period in the case would make it difficult, and perhaps impossible, for an employee to file a complaint and receive a right‑to‑sue letter before the limitations period expired. The Court determined that “any alterations to the statutory limitation period necessarily risk upsetting this delicate balance, removing the incentive of employers to cooperate with the EEOC, and encouraging litigation.”
Second, the court indicated that Title VII is a federal statute and uniform enforcement of the rights it guarantees is an important consideration. If private contracts were able to supersede Title VII, courts would be required to rely upon state‑law contract principles to apply Title VII. Thus, Title VII’s period of limitations could be limited in Michigan but not limited in another state, creating different substantive rights for employees under Title VII based solely upon geographical location.
Therefore, the court held that the limitations period in Title VII conferred a substantive right on the Plaintiff, and the limitations period in her employment contract was invalid. The opinion may be accessed here.