Employment contract’s six-month time limit for filing suit was invalid

In the case of Ellis v. U.S. Security Associates, the California Court of Appeal disagreed with the trial court's ruling dismissing the plaintiff's claims against her former employer as being time-barred, based on a six-month limitation provision contained in the employment application form. The appellate court determined that the employer's shortened limitation provision was unreasonable and against public policy and ordered the plaintiff's claims to be reinstated.

Background And Procedural History

The plaintiff worked for the employer from 2009 to 2011. She started as a security guard.

After she was promoted to the position of field training officer, her new supervisor began harassing her with a pattern of offensive and unwanted sexual behavior at work. When several female employees complained to management about the supervisor's sexually harassing conduct, management required him to participate in sexual harassment counseling. He was terminated later that same year, after the harassing conduct continued.

Following the termination, the plaintiff was promoted to a supervisor position and promised a pay raise to $14 per hour. When she did not receive the raise she had been promised, she resigned.

In 2011, the plaintiff filed suit against the employer, alleging three claims under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and two nonstatutory claims relating to the sexual harassment and the employer's failure to provide the promised pay raise. The claims were timely filed under the statutes of limitations applicable for these claims.

However, the employer requested a dismissal of the suit based on the fact that the employment application form that the plaintiff had signed contained a provision stating that any claim or lawsuit against the employer had to be filed no later than six months after the wrongful act and waived "any statute of limitations to the contrary." The trial court granted the dismissal.

The plaintiff filed an appeal of the ruling in the Court of Appeal.

The Court Of Appeal's Ruling

The Court of Appeal concluded that the employer's shortened limitation provision was unreasonable and against public policy. A contractually shortened limitation period is unreasonable unless it provides sufficient time for a party to investigate the claim and file suit. The employer's agreement provided insufficient time to the plaintiff to protect her statutory rights and was inconsistent with the state's policy to protect and safeguard the rights of employees against discrimination.

Three of the plaintiff's claims were based on the Fair Employment and Housing Act. The suit alleged claims for sexual discrimination and harassment, retaliation, and a failure on the part of the employer to maintain an environment that was free from sexual harassment. Under the Act, prior to filing a discrimination suit, the employee must first file charges with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and obtain a right-to-sue letter from the Department.

Under the statutory provisions the plaintiff had one year from Dec. 2010, when she obtained the right-to-sue letter from the Department, to file the discrimination claims. The other nonstatutory claims were subject to a two-year statute of limitations. The plaintiff's suit was filed in Nov. 2011, and was timely under the applicable statutory limitation provisions.

Contact An Attorney

Individuals pursuing claims against a past or present employer are urged to seek the professional services of a competent attorney who is experienced in such matters to ensure that their rights are fully protected.