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When Cynthia Ebbert’s disability discrimination suit against DaimlerChrysler Corp. was tossed out of court on statute-of-limitations grounds, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission joined in her appeal and asked for a bright-line rule — that the 90-day period does not begin to run until a plaintiff actually receives a “right to sue” letter from the EEOC. Now the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has flatly rejected the EEOC’s arguments, but nonetheless revived Ebbert’s case, saying DaimlerChrysler must prove that the oral notice she received by telephone was just as good as a letter would be in notifying her of her rights. In doing so, the unanimous three-judge panel said that the EEOC’s interpretation of the statute and its own regulations were not entitled to deference under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1984 decision in Chevron USA Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council Inc. “The beginning of the limitations period, like the end, is to be decided by courts,” visiting Judge Paul R. Michel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit wrote in an opinion joined by 3rd Circuit Judges Richard L. Nygaard and Robert E. Cowen. The case is Ebbert v. DaimlerChrysler Corp. “The EEOC attempts to control the circumstances under which federal courts cannot dismiss complaints for late filing. Such power cannot be within the scope of the procedural regulations,” Michel wrote. The flaw in the EEOC’s argument, Michel found, was that it was asking for deference not for its view on its own procedures, but on court procedures. “The EEOC certainly has broad procedural powers for the administrative stage of discrimination complaints, but we cannot see that Congress intended its authority to extend beyond the administrative stage into the judicial proceedings,” Michel wrote. “Judges deciding motions to dismiss complaints as untimely filed are thus the sole arbiters. To say that they do not have the authority to decide timeliness, therefore, would be anomalous,” Michel wrote. Michel found there was no basis for applying Chevron deference since “Congress did not delegate interpretational authority to the EEOC to dictate whether courts are time-barred from hearing certain cases.” Chevron deference is only appropriate, Michel said, “for legislative regulations in which an agency interprets a statute or fills in a gap for which Congress delegated such authority to the agency.” EEOC attorney Caren I. Friedman argued that the courts should defer to the EEOC’s reading of the regulations that the receipt of a letter of notice is the only possible event that starts the 90-day limitations period. Michel found that the argument suffered from multiple flaws. “It simply would not make sense to force courts and defendants to wait for a specific form of notice in situations where a plaintiff is fully aware of the deadline he or she must meet to prosecute a lawsuit,” Michel wrote. “The opposite rule would mean, in the extreme case that the limitations period would not begin to run for years, or even ever, if the EEOC never corrected its addressing. Permitting oral notice to start the limitations period strikes a fairer balance between a defendant’s interest in a quick resolution of charges and clear finality for charges that will not become lawsuits, and a plaintiff’s interest in having adequate opportunity to bring suit and a clear understanding of when and where to do so.” Ebbert was employed by DaimlerChrysler at an assembly plant as an apprentice pipe fitter until September 1995 when she was injured in a motor vehicle accident, suffering a spinal cord injury that caused complete paralysis from the waist down. In her suit, Ebbert claimed that she requested an accommodation from DaimlerChrysler so that she could continue working for the company in some capacity and was refused. In April 1997, Ebbert filed a charge of disability discrimination with the EEOC. She later informed the EEOC that she had moved. In March 1999, she received, at her new address, a letter from the EEOC informing her that the agency was going to dismiss her case and that she would soon receive a notice of her rights. Although a “right to sue” letter may have been sent to Ebbert’s former address, Ebbert denies ever receiving the letter and there is no undisputed evidence that she did. After waiting a month, Ebbert telephoned the EEOC again and was told that the earlier letter had been premature and the EEOC had decided to reopen her case. Then after further investigation, the EEOC again decided to dismiss her case. But Ebbert claims she also never received a second right-to-sue letter. After several telephone calls, the EEOC sent Ebbert a third letter in October 2000, this time to the correct address, and Ebbert filed suit in January 2001. U.S. District Judge Gregory M. Sleet of the District of Delaware dismissed the suit after finding that Ebbert had “actual notice” of her rights before the third letter as a result of the answers she was given in calls to the EEOC. Sleet found that Ebbert was not diligent in pursuing her claim and concluded that she was therefore not entitled to “equitable tolling” of the statute of limitations. Now the 3rd Circuit has ordered Sleet to revisit the question because the evidence was unclear on the issue of whether the information imparted to Ebbert over the phone was sufficient to notify her of her rights. “In this case, oral notice was just as complete as written notice in all respects except one. There is no proof that Ebbert knew when the 90-day statute of limitations period would start as a result of her phone conversations with the EEOC,” Michel wrote. Michel found there was “no evidence shows that Ebbert was told or otherwise knew the 90 days would start running from the date of the conversation.” DaimlerChrysler had the burden, Michel said, “of proving the oral notice was as comprehensive as the written version and, in particular, that it included an explanation of the start date.” But in the hearing before Sleet, he said, DaimlerChrysler’s evidence “was factually incomplete” because the EEOC officials were never deposed and there was no other evidence of what she told Ebbert on the phone.

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