DaimlerChrysler Must Prove Verbal Notice Sufficed in Discrimination Case

February 5, 2003 (PLANSPONSOR.com) -The 3rd US Circuit Court has agreed to review a discrimination suit against DiamlerChrysler, after finding the plaintiff was not accurately notified of her right to sue.

The appeals court has revived Cynthia Ebbert’s disability discrimination suit against DaimlerChrysler, saying the auto maker must prove that the notice she received from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) by telephone was just as good as a letter would be in notifying her of her rights, according to a report by The Legal Intelligencer.

Lost In the Mail

Ebbert was employed by DaimlerChrysler as an apprentice pipe fitter until a September 1995 accident left her completely paralyzed from the waist down.   Following her injury, Ebbert claims she requested an accommodation from DaimlerChrysler so that she could continue working for the company in some capacity but was refused.

After the rejection, Ebbert filed a charge of disability discrimination with the EEOC in April of 1997. She later informed the EEOC that she had moved, without hearing back as to the status of her claim.

In March 1999, she received, at her new address, a letter from the EEOC informing her that the agency was going to dismiss her case and that she would soon receive a notice of her rights.   Although a “right to sue” letter may have been sent to Ebbert’s former address, Ebbert denies ever receiving the letter and there is no undisputed evidence that she did.

After waiting a month, Ebbert telephoned the EEOC again and was told that the earlier letter had been premature and the EEOC had decided to reopen her case. Then after further investigation, the EEOC again decided to dismiss her case. Yet again, Ebbert claims she never received a second right-to-sue letter.

After several telephone calls, the EEOC sent Ebbert a third letter in October 2000, this time to the correct address, and Ebbert filed suit in January 2001.

US District Judge Gregory Sleet of the District of Delaware dismissed the suit after finding that Ebbert had “actual notice” of her rights before the third letter as a result of the answers she was given in calls to the EEOC.   Additionally, Sleet found that Ebbert was not diligent in pursuing her claim and concluded that she was therefore not entitled to “equitable tolling” of the statute of limitations.

Look Back

The 3rd Circuit has ordered Sleet to revisit the question because the evidence was unclear on the issue of whether the information imparted to Ebbert over the phone was sufficient to notify her of her rights. “In this case, oral notice was just as complete as written notice in all respects except one. There is no proof that Ebbert knew when the 90-day statute of limitations period would start as a result of her phone conversations with the EEOC,” Justice Paul Michel wrote.

DaimlerChrysler had the burden, Michel said, “of proving the oral notice was as comprehensive as the written version and, in particular, that it included an explanation of the start date.”

Michel found there was “no evidence shows that Ebbert was told or otherwise knew the 90 days would start running from the date of the conversation.”