As a result of Joshua v. City of Gainesville, 768 So.2d 432 (Fla. 2000), and Woodham v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield, 829 So. 2d 891 (Fla. 2002), the Florida Supreme Court has arguably clarified the timelines applicable to lawsuits under the Florida Civil Rights Act ("FCRA"). This brief article will discuss the question of whether there is a statue of limitations applicable to administrative proceedings under the FCRA and the answer of the Florida Commission on Human Relations ("FCHR").
The Florida Commission on Human Relations
The FCHR is a commission made up of citizens of Florida who are appointed by the Governor. Individuals who believe that they have been discriminated against in violation of the FCRA are required to file a charge with the FCHR within 365 days of the alleged discriminatory act. The FCHR is supposed to investigate the allegations and issue a determination within 180 days. If within 180 days of the filing of the charge the FCHR determines that there is reasonable cause to believe a discriminatory practice has occurred, then the charging party has the choice of bringing a civil action within 1 year of the date of the determination or requesting an administrative hearing within 35 days of the determination. If a finding of "not reasonable cause" is made within the 180 days by the FCHR, then the charging party's only remedy is an administrative hearing, which must be requested within 35 days of the not reasonable cause determination. If the FCHR does not issue a determination within 180 days, the charging party may proceed as though reasonable cause had been found and if they choose they may file suit within four-years of when the employee knew or should have known of the allegedly discriminatory action, or they can request an administrative proceeding.
Administrative proceedings under the FCRA are referred to Division of Administrative Hearing ("DOAH") hearing officers who make recommended orders to the FCHR. A panel of the FCHR then considers the recommended order and may, in their discretion, alter it. Relief available through the administrative hearing route includes lost wages, actual and other compensatory damages, promotion, reinstatement, cease and desist orders, attorney's fees and costs.
Statutes of Limitations
A number of panels of the FCHR have held that statutes of limitations are inapplicable to these administrative proceedings. For example, in Prentice v. North American Realty Corp., FCHR Order No. 00-021 (Jan. 9, 2001), the petitioner filed her charge on April 4, 1994. The FCHR did not complete its investigation and the petitioner requested an administrative hearing on August 21, 1998, more than four years after the alleged harm and more than four years after the charge was filed. The administrative judge dismissed the petition on these grounds. The FCHR overturned, reasoning that if no determination is ever made, a charging party may request an administrative hearing at any time following the initial 180 day period, even after the four year statute of limitations has run.
In Ford v. Mold-Ex Rubber Co., 23 F.A.L.R. 1586, FCHR Order No. 01-014 (Mar. 19, 2001), and Tutson v. Dep't. of Children & Family Servs., FCHR Order No. 02-094 (Nov. 8, 2002), the administrative law judges concluded that the statute of limitations bared petitions for relief more than four years after the alleged discrimination occurred, even through they were filed within 35 days of the issuance of the not reasonable cause determination. The FCHR rejected this position and concluded that where a determination is made, a petition for relief is timely as long as it is filed within 35 days of the determination, even if it is more then 4 years after the last act of alleged discrimination.
In sum, it is currently the FCHR's position that a charging party may request an administrative hearing at any time after the conclusion of the initial 180 day period following the filing of the complaint. However, where there is an FCHR determination of reasonable cause or not reasonable cause, the request for an administrative hearing must be filed within 35 days after the date of the determination by FCHR.
While the FCHR's position may initially trouble employers, they should remember that they can still assert the defense of laches against a charging party who has waited too long to make a request for an administrative hearing. In addition, it is not clear that a court would agree with the FCHR's interpretation of the FCRA if an employer was to appeal an adverse order of the FCHR.