California Supreme Court Expands "Equitable Tolling" of Limitations Period

When an employee pursues internal remedies rather than filing a charge or lawsuit, the statute of limitations is tolled, the California Supreme Court said today. (That means the statute does not count the time during which the internal remedy is pursued, expanding the limitations period accordingly).

The Antelope Valley school district had a detailed internal procedure for investigating discrimination / harassment complaints. Plaintiff McDonald and others pursued the internal remedies. By the time they filed a discrimination charge with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, more than a year had passed since the last discriminatory act.

The limitations period is tolled for "continuing violations," for pursuing mandatory administrative agency remedies, and for other reasons. But the Court expanded that legal doctrine to the employer's internal processes. So, if you have an investigation procedure, grievance steps, internal peer review, or other informal, voluntary alternative dispute resolution procedure, the statute of limitations may be "tolled" while those proceedings continue. It will be important to send a letter telling employees when the internal remedies are no longer in effect to trigger the statute. It will also be important to secure witness information, documents, and the like, given that the employer may face litigation over stale issues down the road.

The opinion is McDonald v. Antelope Valley Community College District and the opinion is here.