Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs
United States Supreme Court
IRWIN v. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
No. 89-5867 Argued: Oct. 1, 1990. --- Decided: Dec 3, 1990
See 111 U.S. 805, 111 S.Ct. 805.
Petitioner Irwin filed a complaint with the Veterans' Administration (VA), claiming that he had been unlawfully fired by the VA on the basis of his race and disability. The VA dismissed the complaint, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) affirmed that decision on March 19, 1987, mailing copies of a right-to-sue letter to both Irwin and his attorney. Irwin received the letter on April 7. His attorney received actual notice of the letter on April 10, having been out of the country when it was delivered to his office on March 23. Forty-four days after his attorney's office received the letter and 29 days after Irwin received his copy, he filed an action in the District Court, alleging, inter alia, a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction on the ground that the complaint was not filed within the time specified by 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c), which provides that a complaint against the Federal Government must be filed within 30 days "of receipt of notice of final action taken" by the EEOC. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that a notice of final action is "received" when the EEOC delivers its notice to a claimant or his attorney's offices, whichever comes first, and that the 30-day span operates as an absolute jurisdictional limit.
1. Irwin's complaint was untimely. Section 2000e-16(c) requires that the EEOC's letter be "received" but does not specify that receipt must be by the claimant rather than by his representative. Congress may depart from the common and established practice of providing notification through counsel only if it does so expressly. Irwin's argument that there is a material difference between receipt by an attorney and receipt by his office for purposes of § 2000e-16(c) is rejected. Lower courts have consistently held that notice to an attorney's office which is acknowledged by a representative of that office qualifies as notice to the client, and the practical effect of a contrary rule would be to create uncertainty by encouraging factual disputes about when actual notice was received. P. 92-93.
2. Statutes of limitations in actions against the Government are subject to the rebuttable presumption of equitable tolling applicable to suits against private defendants. Applying the same rule amounts to little, if any, broadening of a congressional waiver of sovereign immunity. Pp. 93-96.
3. Irwin's failure to file may not be excused under equitable tolling principles. Federal courts have typically extended equitable relief only sparingly in suits against private litigants, allowing tolling where the claimant has actively pursued his judicial remedies by filing a defective pleading or where he has been induced or tricked by his adversary's misconduct into allowing the filing deadline to pass. Such equitable tolling principles do not extend to Irwin's claim that his untimely filing should be excused because his attorney was out of the office when the notice was received and he filed within 30 days of the date he personally received notice, which is at best a garden variety claim of excusable neglect. P. 96.
874 F.2d 1092 (CA5 1989), affirmed.
REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. ----. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. ----. SOUTER, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Jon R. Ker, Hewitt, Tex., for petitioner.
John G. Roberts, Jr., Washington, D.C., for respondents.
Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.
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