Labor & EmploymentSix-Month Contractual Limitations Period for Discrimination Retaliation Claims Upheld by 5th Circuit Court

06/12/2024by Thomas Fee

In a recent ruling that has garnered significant attention, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a six-month contractual limitations period for discrimination retaliation claims. This decision has far-reaching implications for employers and employees, reshaping the landscape of employment law in Texas and beyond.

The Labor & Employment Group at Fee, Smith & Sharp LLP discusses the details of this case, the rationale behind the court’s decision, and its potential impact on future discrimination and retaliation claims.

Discrimination and Retaliation Laws

Federal, state, and local laws govern discrimination and retaliation claims to protect employees from unfair treatment and ensure equal employment opportunities. It’s vital that employers and employees understand these laws to navigate their rights and obligations effectively. The primary laws pertaining to the six-month contractual limitations period upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals are:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin is prohibited under Title VII. The Act also outlaws retaliation against individuals who file discrimination complaints, participate in an investigation, or oppose discriminatory practices.
  • Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866: 1981 is a federal law that prohibits workplace discrimination and other contractual relationships based on race, ethnicity, and nationality. It applies to all aspects of the employment process, including hiring, promotion, compensation, and termination.

Background of the Discrimination and Retaliation Issue

The case that brought this issue to the forefront centers around Jennifer Harris, a Black woman who was a District Sales Manager at a Texas-based FedEx. In 2019, Harris’s supervisor allegedly suggested she step down from her role due to low team sales performance. Soon after, Harris filed an internal complaint alleging racial discrimination.

FedEx investigated Harris’s discrimination claim but ultimately concluded there was no evidence to support it. However, Harris asserts that after filing the complaint, she faced increased scrutiny, performance reviews targeting her team’s weaknesses, and ultimately, termination in January 2020. Harris believed this termination was retaliation for her initial complaint.

The Harris v. FedEx Case

In May 2021, 16 months after being fired, Harris filed a lawsuit against FedEx, alleging race discrimination and retaliation under § 1981 and Title VII. She received a $366,160,000 jury verdict – including prior, future, and punitive damages – against FedEx for retaliation. Despite FedEx’s post-trial motions, the district court entered final judgment against FedEx for the entire jury verdict, reasoning that the six-month contractual limit was unreasonable and infringed upon her Title VII rights.

FedEx appealed this judgment to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing Harris should have been barred from bringing her lawsuit due to the six-month contractual limitations period outlined in FedEx’s standard employment agreement. The company also argued Harris did not present sufficient evidence to support her retaliation claim or punitive damages and that her compensatory damages should be capped.

Federal statutes, such as Title VII, generally allow a window of 180 to 300 days for filing a discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  However, employers and employees can agree to different terms in their contracts, and this case tested the enforceability of such a contractual provision. The agreement between Harris and FedEx stipulated that any claims arising from employment, including discrimination and retaliation, had to be brought within six months of the alleged incident. Harris filed her lawsuit well beyond this timeframe, raising the question of whether a contractual limitations period could effectively shorten the federal window for pursuing a retaliation claim under Title VII.

The Fifth Circuit’s Decision

The Fifth Circuit found that Harris’s § 1981 claims were time-barred under her employment contract and thus failed as a matter of law. It ruled Harris was not excused from the Limitation Provision in her employment contract simply because she failed to read it. The court also noted the Limitation Provision did not apply to her Title VII claims.

The court upheld the jury’s verdict for Harris on her Title VII retaliation claim but reduced her compensatory damages to $248,619.57 due to Title VII’s $300,000.00 cap on damages and concluded she was not entitled to punitive damages. In summary, the 5th Circuit Court upheld the jury’s verdict on Harris’s Title VII retaliation claim but reduced the compensatory damages, dismissed the punitive damages, and dismissed her § 1981 claims as time-barred.

Implications of the Fifth Circuit’s Ruling for Texas Employers

The Fifth Circuit’s ruling in Harris v. FedEx has significant implications for employers in Texas. One of the most important comes from the court’s ruling that Harris’s § 1981 claims were time-barred under her employment contract. This suggests employers can potentially limit their liability for certain claims through provisions in their employment contracts.

Unclear or poorly drafted employment contracts can have significant negative consequences for employers, leading to headaches and potential liabilities. Key implications of unclear employment contracts for Texas employers include:

  • Misunderstandings and disputes: Unclear terms in the contract can produce misunderstandings about job duties, compensation, termination procedures, or other rights and obligations. This ambiguity can fuel disputes between employers and employees, potentially escalating to lawsuits.
  • Employee claims: Ambiguous language can leave employers vulnerable to employee claims of wrongful termination, breach of contract, or missed compensation. Employees might argue that the contract did not clearly outline expectations or provide promised benefits.
  • Unclear performance expectations: Vague job descriptions or performance standards make holding employees accountable for their work difficult. Employers might struggle to justify disciplinary actions or terminations without clear expectations outlined in the contract.
  • Difficulty in enforcing policies: If the contract contradicts company policies or procedures, it can create confusion and difficulty in enforcing desired workplace standards.
  • Legal fees: Defending against employee lawsuits arising from unclear contract terms can be costly in terms of legal fees and potential settlements.
  • Severance packages: If the contract is unclear regarding termination procedures or severance packages, employers may be forced to offer more generous severance packages to avoid litigation.

While Texas is an at-will employment state, unclear contracts might create an implied contract limiting the employer’s right to terminate. Have one of our experienced labor & employment lawyers review your employment contracts to ensure they comply with Texas law and adequately protect your business interests.

Get Professional Legal Guidance From Fee, Smith & Sharp LLP

Employment law is highly complex, and employers and employees can benefit from professional legal guidance. At Fee, Smith & Sharp LLP, our experienced labor & employment attorneys are here to assist with drafting, reviewing, and negotiating employment contracts, and representing clients in discrimination and retaliation claims. Contact us today to learn more about how we can support your legal needs.

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