If a letter from the EEOC is in your virtual mailbox but you never open it, have you received it? Most of us are familiar with the requirement that a claimant who files an EEOC charge has 90 days to file a lawsuit after receiving what is usually required a “right-to-sue” letter from the agency. This is one of the deadlines that both plaintiff and defense counsel track on their calendars. But when is that notice officially “received” by the claimant — especially in these days of electronic correspondence? In Paniconi v. Abington Hospital-Jefferson Health, one Pennsylvania federal court decided to draw a hard line on when that date actually occurs.
A Cautionary Tale
Denise Paniconi worked for a hospital in Pennsylvania and filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC alleging race and religious discrimination. The EEOC investigated and issued a right-to-sue letter dated September 8, 2021, which gave her 90 days to file her complaint. She filed her complaint 91 days after the EEOC issued the letter. The employer moved to dismiss the complaint for failing to comply with the 90-day deadline.
What ordinarily would just be a day counting exercise took a twist because of how the EEOC issued the notice. The EEOC sent both the plaintiff and her lawyer an email stating that there was an “important document” now available on the EEOC portal. Neither the plaintiff nor her lawyer opened the email or accessed the portal until sometime later. They argued that the 90-day filing deadline should run from the date that the claimant actually accesses the document, not from the date the EEOC notified them it was available.
The court dismissed the complaint for failing to meet the deadline. The opinion noted that although the 90-day period is not a “jurisdictional predicate,” it cannot be extended, even by one day, without some sort of recognized equitable consideration. Paniconi’s lawyer argued that the court should apply the old rule for snail mail ̶ without proof otherwise, it should be assumed that the notice is received within three days after the issuance date. The court disagreed and pointed out that no one disputed the date that the email was sent ̶ it was simply not opened and read by either Paniconi or her lawyer. The court said that there was no reason that those individuals did not open the email and meet the 90-day deadline.
Deadlines Are Important
This is another example of how electronic communication can complicate the legal world. The EEOC has leaned into its use of the portal, and the rest of the world needs to get used to it. The minute you receive an email or notice from the portal, you need to calendar that deadline. Some courts (at least this one) believe that electronic communication is immediate, and you may not get grace for not logging on and finding out what is happening with your charge. Yet another reason to stay on top of your emails.