Christmas v. Department of Education

Can a federal employee avoid time limits by dodging receipt of a final agency decision or other significant documents?

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia surely saw the irony when it recently issued a Memorandum Order in the case of Christmas v. Spellings, Secretary, U.S. Department of Education.

The court’s order addresses a question of timeliness of Plaintiff Christmas’ suit in which she alleged race and sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court found that Christmas’ suit was time-barred and granted the government’s motion to dismiss. (Christmas v. Spellings, U.S.D.C.D.C., Civil Action No. 05-0707 (JR), 12-16-05).

The agency issued final decisions rejecting the allegations of discrimination made by Ms. Christmas in two administrative complaints. On the date of these decisions, the agency’s EEO Officer sent the final decisions to Ms. Christmas and to her representative by certified mail. The Postal Service tracking system shows the representative received her copy. However, Ms. Christmas never picked her copy up and it was returned to the agency. The agency emailed her to let her know that the decision was available for her to pick up in the EEO office. Ms. Christmas finally picked up her copy more than a month after the date of the decisions. She filed suit ninety days after she picked up the decision, but more than 120 days after the date of the decision.

The question addressed by the court was what constitutes receipt of a certified letter by a plaintiff, sufficient to trigger the 90 day limit for filing an action in district court under Title VII. Noting that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals does not appear to have addressed this question, and also noting that other circuit courts of appeal apparently disagree on this issue, the court nevertheless concluded that Ms. Christmas failed to file her suit within the 90 day time limit “under the standards adopted by any circuit.” (p. 4)

The court pointed out that Plaintiff had failed to pick up her certified mail at the Post Office, which held it for more than a month. Then when it was returned to the agency, she waited another month after being notified by email that it was available before she finally picked it up. The court refused to accept that the date she finally picked up the decision was the date that triggered the 90 day period “[b]ecause she received both actual and constructive notice” that the final decision was available for her to pick up on several dates prior to the date she actually picked it up.

It is not uncommon for complainants to “dodge” delivery of a final agency decision or similar significant documents in an administrative proceeding. This case illustrates the dramatic consequences that can occur if the employee is not careful with this tactic.

About the Author

Susan McGuire Smith spent most of her federal legal career with NASA, serving as Chief Counsel at Marshall Space Flight Center for 14 years. Her expertise is in government contracts, ethics, and personnel law.