NAACP Legal Defense Fund Files Brief in Support of Older Worker Seeking Supreme Court Review of his Employment Discrimination Suit

Today, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court of the United States in Villarreal v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Co. LDF’s brief was filed in support of Richard M. Villarreal, who seeks certiorari review of the decision of the en banc Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed dismissal of his age discrimination claim under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).  Mr. Villarreal’s claim was dismissed, in part, because the court found that he was not entitled to equitable tolling of the limitations period.

Generally, prior to filing an employment discrimination suit in federal court, a plaintiff must file an administrative charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 180 or 300 days of an alleged unlawful employment practice.  However, this timely-filing requirement may be “equitably tolled” in certain circumstances, allowing for the late filing of claims when, as is the case here, an employer utilizes secret and unlawful hiring preferences that are unknown to the job applicant.  In such circumstances, under long-standing Eleventh Circuit precedent, the statute of limitations for bringing a charge of discrimination should be equitably tolled until such secret preferences become apparent, or should become apparent, to a reasonably prudent job applicant.  And, while equitable tolling generally requires a plaintiff to show he was diligent in preserving his rights, there is no requirement for the job applicant to undertake an investigation into hidden discriminatory practices of the employer when he has no reason to believe discrimination has occurred.  This standard, which has been consistently reaffirmed by multiple courts of appeal for decades, strikes an appropriate balance between upholding principles of equity and access to justice for discrimination victims and fostering finality and clarity about an employer’s potential liability on the other.

Now, pursuant to the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling, a job applicant must investigate a potential discrimination claim against an employer, even when he has no reason to believe discrimination has occurred, in order to establish that he was diligent in pursuing his rights.  If the applicant does not undertake such a blind and unprompted investigation, any later-discovered claim that the employer discriminated against him cannot be equitably tolled.  This effectively imposes a new “rigid diligence” burden on plaintiffs seeking equitable tolling of claims arising from an employer’s use of secret preferences in evaluating an application for employment. 

“We are very concerned with the Eleventh Circuit’s unduly burdensome equitable tolling standard for employment discrimination plaintiffs,” said Coty Montag, Deputy Director of Litigation for LDF and lead counsel on the amicus brief. “This requirement will significantly limit access to the courts for employment discrimination victims and undermines the remedial purposes of the federal anti-discrimination laws.”

LDF’s friend-of-the-court brief urges the Supreme Court to grant certiorari review of the case for two key reasons.  First, in accordance with Court precedent, equitable tolling must be applied flexibly and fairly to fulfill the mandates of the federal anti-discrimination laws, such as the ADEA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), and to ensure effective enforcement of these statutes.  This requires courts to conduct a fact-intensive inquiry to determine whether the applicant was reasonably diligent in pursuing her rights.  Second, the Eleventh Circuit’s rigid diligence standard conflicts with established law, inappropriately burdens both job seekers and employers, and is contrary to the purposes of Title VII and the ADEA.    

“The reach of the Eleventh Circuit’s rule is extraordinarily broad, extending beyond ADEA and disparate impact cases to any type of employment discrimination plaintiff seeking to equitably toll her claim,” said Natasha Merle, LDF’s Fried Frank Fellow. “This creates a real risk of unfairness by erecting artificial barriers to the enforcement of the civil rights laws.” 

LDF also filed a brief in support of Mr. Villarreal in March, 2016 when his case was heard before the en banc Eleventh Circuit. LDF filed both briefs with Dana Lossia and Robert Stroup from the law firm of Levy Ratner, P.C. 

Read LDF’s full amicus brief


Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute is a multi-disciplinary and collaborative hub within LDF that launches targeted campaigns and undertakes innovative research to shape the civil rights narrative.