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United States District Court Judge Holds that Employee’s 2005 Age Discrimination Claim is Timely

On April 4, 2010, Maine United States District Court Judge John A. Woodcock, Jr. concluded that claims of age discrimination in hiring brought by plaintiff Glenn Duckworth in connection with the failure of Mid State Machine to hire Duckworth in 2005 for an open position were timely even though the Plaintiff did not file a Charge with the Maine Human Rights Commission and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission until over three years after the alleged discrimination and did not file his claim in court until almost four years after the alleged discrimination. The case is reported as Duckworth v. Mid-State Machine Products, — F.Supp.2d —-, 2010 WL 1348245 (D.Me. 2010)

In this case, Mr. Duckworth had worked for Mid State Machine (“MSM”) for over six years from 1995 to 2002. For most of this time, Mr. Duckworth worked as the facilities’ gage control technician. In 2002, Duckworth was laid off in a company wide reduction in force. The layoff had nothing to do with Duckworth’s performance and performance evaluations documenting Duckworth’s performance during his employment with MSM indicated that he had performed the duties of his job well. In 2005, Duckworth was seeking work and so called MSM to see if they were hiring. Duckworth spoke with four different managers at MSM on five occasions and during these conversations indicated that he was interested in returning to work for MSM if they were hiring. Duckworth also provided MSM with a copy of his resume.

In fact, during this time in 2005, MSM was seeking to fill Duckworth’s old gage control technician position. MSM’s managers did not mention to Duckworth that the gage control technician position was open. MSM’s hiring manager was made aware of Duckworth’s interest in returning to work for MSM and claims that he initially considered Duckworth for the position but subsequently decided to hire a much younger and less experienced candidate instead of Duckworth. The reasons giving by MSM’s manager for hiring the much younger and inexperienced candidate over Duckworth are in dispute and Duckworth alleges that the reasons given by MSM for their failure to hire him are untrue and pretexts.

After deciding not to hire Duckworth for the position, MSM did not inform Duckworth that he had been passed over a position. Rather, when Duckworth did speak with the hiring manager, the hiring manager merely indicated that MSM had nothing for Duckworth at that time and made no mention of the open position, the fact that the hiring manager had given some initial consideration to hiring Duckworth for this open position, or that he had filled the position with someone else. Because Duckworth had no knowledge that he had been passed over for hire into an open position, Duckworth did not make further inquiry about the reasons that he was passed over for the position and did not file a Charge of Discrimination.

In 2008, Duckworth again expressed interest in working for MSM and was interviewed for his gage control technician position but again was passed over for a younger and less experienced candidate. Based on the interview process and statements made to Duckworth during the process, he suspected age discrimination and filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Maine Human Rights Commission and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In the context of the Maine Human Rights Commission investigation, Duckworth learned for the first time in late 2008 of the open gage control position in 2005 and the fact that he had been passed over for this position. Upon learning this information, Duckworth amended his Charge of Discrimination to allege a claim of age discrimination with respect to the 2005 hiring decision as well as two subsequently hiring decisions in 2006 and 2007. Duckworth then filed suit in United States District Court in June 2009 alleging unlawful age discrimination in hiring under the Maine Human Rights Act and Age Discrimination in Employment Act for MSM’s failure to hire him into open gage control technician positions in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.

A Motion for Partial Summary Judgment from MSM followed in which MSM argued that Duckworth had missed his 6 month deadline for filing a Charge of Discrimination with the Maine Human Rights Commission, 300 day deadline for filing a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the two year statutes of limitations for filing Maine Human Rights Act and Age Discrimination in Employment Act claims in court in connection with his 2005, 2006, and 2007 claims. MSM’s position was premised on the argument that the deadlines for filing Charges and claims in Court began to run when Duckworth was passed over for hire, i.e. in July 2005 for his 2005 failure to hire claim.

Duckworth argued that his claims were timely. Duckworth’s claim of timeliness was based on the argument that the deadlines for filing Charges and claims in Court did not began to run until he received “authoritative and unambiguous notice” in late 2008 that there had been an hiring decision and that he had been passed over for an open position and that since MSM’s manager had been less than honest with him about the fact that there had been an open position in 2005 that MSM should be “equitably estopped” from asserting that Duckworth had missed his deadlines since this was due to MSM’s failure to provide Duckworth with all of the relevant information.

In its April 4, 2010 decision, the denies MSM’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment with respect to the 2005 failure to hire claim. The Court holds that in situations such as this one where an applicant is misled about the availability of an open position that the deadlines for filing Charges of Discrimination and the statutes of limitation for filing one’s claims in court do not begin to run until the employee learns that they were passed over for the position in question. The Court also held that in situations such as this where an employer misleads a job candidate with regard to whether they have been passed over for a particular position that the employer is “equitably estopped” from asserting a statute of limitations defense based on the period of time that the candidate is unaware of the fact that they were passed over for the position in question. Based on these conclusions, the Court found that Duckworth’s 2005 failure to hire claims were timely even though he did not file his Charges of Discrimination until over three years after the 2005 hiring decision and did not file his claims in court until almost four years after the hiring decision. The Court’s decision rejected portions of a previous Recommended Decision by the Magistrate Judge.

Under the court’s ruling, deadlines for filing an employment discrimination claim should not begin to run for persons who are not aware that they have been subjected to an adverse employment action until they receive “authoritative and unambiguous notice” of the adverse employment action, at least when their lack of knowledge is due to an employer’s misleading statements. Therefore, persons should not necessarily assume that if they learn that they have been subjected to an adverse employment action such as a failure to hire or failure to promote after the 300 day deadline for filing a Charge of Discrimination with the Maine Human Rights Commission and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or after the statute of limitations has run for filing their claims in court that it is too late to bring a claim. Instead, they should consult experienced an employment lawyer.