Employment Law Alert: Employee’s Agreement to Shorten Limitations Period Held Unenforceable

In Ellis v. U.S. Security Associates et al., No. A136028, published March 20, 2014 (Ellis), the California Court of Appeal held that a signed employment application purporting to shorten the statute of limitations applicable to an employee’s potential Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) claims was unenforceable.

The employer’s application contained conspicuous language instructing the employee to read the provisions of the application carefully. The conditions for employment set forth in the application provided that the employee’s signature would constitute an agreement that a six month limitations period would apply to any potential claim related to the employee’s service and the employee waived any statutory limitations period. Following alleged incidents of sexual harassment and retaliation, Plaintiff filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) and obtained a right to sue letter. The lawsuit was filed in November 2011, more than a year after the alleged incidents of harassment and retaliation occurred.

Plaintiff asserted claims for sexual harassment, retaliation, and failure to maintain environment free from harassment under FEHA. The defendant brought a motion for judgment on the pleadings on grounds that plaintiff’s FEHA claims were barred by the six month limitations period set forth in the employment application. The trial court granted the motion based on contract law principles affirming the right of a party to waive statutes of limitation. The Court of Appeal reversed, concluding the six month limitations period provided in the employer’s application undermined the employee’s effective pursuit of a judicial remedy and was inconsistent with the public policy underlying FEHA.

Ellis confirms the primacy of the public policies underlying FEHA claims and demonstrates the extent to which FEHA places substantive restraints on other applicable law governing the relationship between employer and employee.

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March 26, 2014