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Notice of Right to Appeal

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held in Staropoli v. U.S. Postal Service, No. 09-1766 (BAH) (May 25, 2011), that an administrative judge’s decision did not contain proper notice regarding the time limits to file an appeal. The district court found it appropriate to apply equitable tolling, a principle of law whereby a statute of limitations does not bar the claim of an appellant who did not or could not discover the expiration of an appeals period despite due diligence. Staropoli’s administrative appeal to the EEOC was therefore not time-barred despite having filed it nearly a year after the date the agency alleged was the filing deadline.

Staropoli was a Postal Inspector for the U.S. Postal Service who filed an EEO complaint alleging discrimination based on sex and retaliation when she was terminated following the adoption of a 50-hour workweek rule. After a hearing before an EEOC administrative judge, the case was dismissed on the merits. Staropoli filed an appeal with the EEOC Office of Federal Operations (OFO) more than a year after the administrative judge’s decision. OFO dismissed the appeal as untimely and denied Staropoli’s request for reconsideration.

Staropoli then filed a civil action in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The agency argued that Staropoli did not timely appeal the EEOC decision to OFO and that it was therefore time-barred. Staropoli countered that the administrative judge’s decision did not contain proper notice regarding the time limits to appeal and that equitable tolling should be applied.

The administrative judge did not clearly advise Staropoli that a 30-day appeals period would begin at the end of the agency’s 40-day review period if the agency did not issue a final order. Staropoli incorrectly believed that no hard deadline existed for filing an appeal if the agency did not issue a final order within 40 days, which it did not. The administrative judge’s notice provided, in relevant part: “If the agency has not issued its final order within 40 calendar days of its receipt of the hearing file and this decision, the complainant may file an appeal to the Commission directly from this decision.”

Staropoli’s incorrect belief regarding the appeals period was also based on an EEOC “Frequently Asked Questions” (FAQ) document which read: “If the Agency fails to issue a final order, you have the right to file your own appeal at any time after the conclusion of the Agency’s 40-day period for issuing a final order. “Staropoli understood the administrative judge’s notice and the FAQ document to provide that an appeal could be filed at any time” with no hard deadline if the agency did not file a final order. The court found that the inadequate notice provided to Staropoli justified equitable tolling of the time limits. The agency also did not indicate that any prejudice resulted from Staropoli’s delay. The court further found that Staropoli’s delay was not so lengthy to indicate a lack of due diligence.

The district court held that administrative judge decisions that become final agency actions must provide proper notice to trigger the applicable time limit for appeals and civil actions. The district court excused Staropoli’s delay in filing her appeal due to the lack of proper notice by the EEOC administrative judge. The court also held that Staropoli timely filed her civil action in the U.S. District Court because she filed her civil action within 90 days of the EEOC decision on her request for reconsideration.