On January 15, 2021, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal court that hears appeals from lower federal courts in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Michigan, issued a decision that prevents employers from using employee handbooks and similar employee agreements to reduce the time within which their workers can sue for workplace discrimination.
In a case filed in an Ohio federal court, Thompson v. Fresh Products, LLC, et al., the plaintiff sued her former employer raising several claims, including claims of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), as well as similar claims under Ohio law.
The employer argued that the suit was time barred because it was filed more than six months after she was laid off, and she had signed an Employment Handbook that said any lawsuits against the company had to be filed within six months.
The Court allowed the six month limit to kick out the plaintiff’s claims brought under Ohio law, but ruled that the Handbook could not prevent her from bringing her federal claims to court. The Court found that the federal laws that protect workers from workplace discrimination based on factors such as race, gender, disability, and age create core rights that cannot be waived or signed away. Thus, a worker’s right to bring a discrimination claim within the time period set out in the federal laws cannot be changed by an Employee Handbook or other similar agreements between a worker and her employer.
This is a big win for workers in Ohio and the other states in the Sixth Circuit. For years, many employers have included these kinds of time limit clauses in Employee Handbooks and other agreements that workers have to sign when they are hired. Companies have tried to limit lawsuits to shorter periods than allowed under the law to prevent employees from bringing claims when they have been the victims of workplace discrimination. Now the Court has made it clear that in Ohio, and the other states in the Sixth Circuit, employers can’t prevent a worker from bringing a discrimination lawsuit that is properly filed with the time set out in the federal anti-discrimination laws themselves (generally 300 days in Ohio).
One question this case did not answer is whether an arbitration agreement can shorten the time a worker has to bring forward a discrimination complaint. Employment law can be complex and is constantly changing. It is important the workers consult legal counsel to help sort through these complicated issues.