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Sixth Circuit Says No to Contractually Shortened ADA and ADEA

Cassandra Thompson, a Black 50+-year-old woman who suffers from severe arthritis, sued her former employer, Fresh Products, for disability, age, and race discrimination. At the time of her hire, Thompson signed a Handbook Acknowledgement. The Acknowledgement contained the following language:

“In consideration of my employment or continued employment, I agree that any claim or lawsuit arising out of my employment with Fresh Products must be filed no more than six (6) months after the date of the employment action that is the subject [sic] of the claim or lawsuit. While I understand that the statute of limitations for claims arising out of an employment action may be longer than six (6) months, I agree to be bound by the six (6) month period of limitations set forth herein and I waive any statute of limitations to the contrary.”

Fresh Products moved to dismiss Thompson’s lawsuit against it when she brought her lawsuit outside of the six month period to which she agreed. The district court dismissed her claims for that reason. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear her appeal.

In 2019, the Sixth Circuit rejected an employer’s contractual shortening of Title VII’s statute of limitations. In reaching its decision, the appellate court relied upon Title VII’s requirement that employees first file with the EEOC to provide an opportunity for the agency to investigate complaints and to allow employers to voluntarily comply. Allowing a contractual shortening of the time period would “frustrate the uniform application of Title VII” nationally, according to the circuit court. The court also asserted Title VII’s self-contained limitation period reflected a substantive right that may not be prospectively waived. In considering Thompson’s case, the Sixth Circuit found the same reasoning should be applied to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) as the former expressly incorporates Title VII’s procedures and limitations period, and the latter mirrors Title VII’s language in the relevant provisions. Thus, the court concluded the statute of limitations periods may not be shortened.