Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs

PETITIONER: Irwin
RESPONDENT: Department of Veterans Affairs
LOCATION: Southern District Court of Florida

DOCKET NO.: 89-5867
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1990-1991)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 498 US 89 (1990)
ARGUED: Oct 01, 1990
DECIDED: Dec 03, 1990

ADVOCATES:
John G. Roberts, Jr. - for respondents
Jon T. Ker - Argued the case for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Shirley Irwin filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that he had been unlawfully fired by the federal Veterans Administration on the basis of his race and disability. In order to sue the federal government for unlawful discrimination, one must obtain a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC (which is a waiver of the government's sovereign immunity from private suits). The EEOC mailed right-to-sue letters to both Irwin and his attorney. His attorney was out of the country, however, so while the letter arrived at his office on March 23, the attorney did not receive it until April 10. Irwin receive his copy of the letter on April 7. Less than a month from when Irwin received the letter, but more than a month from when the letter arrived at his attorney's office, Irwin filed suit in federal District Court. The court dismissed the suit, however, because it was filed more than a month after the attorney's office received the letter. Under 42 U.S.C. 2000e-16(c), suits against the government must be filed within 30 days "of receipt of notice of final action taken" by the EEOC. The court ruled that the 30-day window began when the attorney's office received the letter. On appeal, Irwin argued that the window should have started when he or his attorney - not just the attorney's office - actually received the letter. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument, however, upholding the District Court's decision.

Question

Does the 30-day window after "receipt of notice of final action taken" by the EEOC within which a suit against the federal government must be filed begin when an attorney's office receives notification, or when the attorney or client himself receives notification?

Media for Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 01, 1990 in Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - December 03, 1990 in Irwin v. Department of Veterans Affairs

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce in No. 89-5867, Irwin versus Veterans Administration.

This case arose out of a claim by the petitioner that he had been unlawfully fired by the Veterans Administration on the basis of his race and age.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we hold that notice to an attorney's office which is not acknowledged by a representative of that office qualifies as notice to the client because petitioner did not file a suit until 44 days after his attorney's office received notice, his filing was not timely.

We also hold, however, that the late filing did not bar the District Court from exercising jurisdiction over the case and that statutes of limitations and actions against the government are subject to the same rebuttal presumption of equitable tolling that applies to suits against private defendants.

But in this case, the petitioner's failure to file cannot be excused under the equitable tolling doctrine.

He has simply a garden variety claim of excusable neglect which is not the same as equitable tolling.

So, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Justice White filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment which Justice Marshall joins; Justice Stevens filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

Justice Souter took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.