The Supreme Court of Missouri just made it more difficult for employers to defeat employment discrimination claims on the basis of untimely administrative complaints. In Missouri, complainants have 180 days from the date of the alleged unlawful conduct to file a complaint with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (“MCHR”) in order to pursue claims under the Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”). They have 300 days to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) in order to maintain claims under federal law. In a case called Farrow v. Saint Francis Medical Center, a terminated employee filed her MCHR complaint 230 days after her discharge, so it was untimely for state law claims, but her subsequent EEOC charge was timely for federal claims. Because the federal agency (the EEOC) took the lead on investigating the claims, the state agency (the MCHR) never asked the employer for a response, and the untimeliness of the MCHR complaint was never raised. The EEOC ultimately issued a right-to-sue letter, and then the MCHR did too based on the EEOC’s closure of the investigation.
After the employee sued in state court, the trial judge granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that the employee’s MHRA claims were barred because she filed her MCHR complaint after the 180-day deadline. The appellate court agreed, but in a startling turnaround, the Missouri Supreme Court revived the employee’s claims. The Court concluded that the employer had waived its untimeliness defense to the MHRA claims by not raising the issue at the agency stage, even though the MHRC did not investigate. The Court ruled that the employer was required either (1) to notify the MCHR that the complaint was untimely before a right-to-sue letter was issued, or (2) to initiate a legal action challenging the MCHR’s right-to-sue letter within 30 days of its issuance. In short, it was too late to challenge the late filing.
The Farrow decision does not specifically address whether an employer must raise other fundamental defenses at the agency stage or risk waiving them in court – such as the employer having fewer than the requisite six employees for MHRA coverage, or the employer being a religious organization exempt from the MHRA. The employer in the Farrow case actually raised the religious exemption defense too, and the Court proceeded to address the substance of it, suggesting that the defense was not waived by failing to raise it with the MCHR. Nevertheless, prudence may now dictate raising all threshold challenges at the agency stage.
The takeaway for Missouri-based employers: When an MCHR complaint is filed against you (which usually is a dual-filing with the EEOC):
- Immediately notify the MCHR if the alleged conduct occurred more than 180 days before the complaint was filed, and seek dismissal on that basis. Sometimes that is difficult to determine from the face of the complaint, but when in doubt, seek counsel or err on the side of raising an untimeliness defense. Likewise, inform the MCHR if there are other threshold defects or exemptions from MHRA coverage, even if the EEOC (not the MCHR) is investigating and even if the claims are timely or otherwise viable under federal law.
- If the MCHR issues a right-to-sue letter for a complaint that has a threshold defect (either before or in spite of your objection), bring a court action to invalidate it within 30 days.