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Irwin v. Department of Veterans Administration (89-5867), 498 U.S. 89 (1990)
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IRWIN v. VETERANS ADMINISTRATION

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.

No. 89-5867

[December 3, 1990]

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

In April 1986, petitioner, Shirley Irwin, was fired from his job by respondent Veteran's Administration (VA). Irwin contacted an Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) counselor and filed a complaint with the EEOC, alleging that the VA had unlawfully discharged him on the basis of his race and physical disability. The EEOC dismissed Irwin's complaint by a letter dated March 19, 1987. The letter, which was sent to both Irwin and his attorney, expressly informed them that Irwin had the right to file a civil action under Title VII, 78 Stat. 253, as amended, 42 U.S.C. 2000e et seq., within 30 days of receipt of the EEOC notice. According to Irwin, he did not receive the EEOC's letter until April 7, 1987, and the letter to his attorney arrived at the attorney's office on March 23, 1987, while the attorney was out of the country. The attorney did not learn of the EEOC's action until his return on April 10, 1987.

Irwin filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas on May 6, 1987, 44 days after the EEOC notice was received at his attorney's office, but 29 days after the date on which he claimed he received the letter. The complaint alleged that the VA discriminated against him because of his race, age, and handicap, in violation of 42 U.S.C. 2000e et seq., 81 Stat. 602, as amended, 29 U.S.C. 621 et seq., 87 Stat. 390, as amended, 29 U.S.C. 791 et seq., and the First and Fifth Amendments. Respondent VA moved to dismiss, asserting, inter alia, that the District Court lacked jurisdiction because the complaint was not filed within 30 days of the EEOC's decision as specified in 42 U.S.C. 2000e-16(c). The District Court granted the motion.

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. 874 F. 2d 1092 (1989). The court held that the 30-day period begins to run on the date that the EEOC right-to-sue letter is delivered to the offices of formally designated counsel or to the claimant, even if counsel himself did not actually receive notice until later. Id., at 1094. The Court of Appeals further determined that the 30-day span allotted under 2000e16(c) operates as an absolute jurisdictional limit. Id., at 1095. Accordingly, it reasoned that the District Court could not excuse Irwin's late filing because federal courts lacked jurisdiction over his untimely claim. Ibid. That holding is in direct conflict with the decisions of four other Courts of Appeals. [n.1]

We granted certiorari to determine when the 30-day period under 2000e-16(c) begins to run and to resolve the Circuit conflict over whether late-filed claims are jurisdictionally barred.

Section 2000e-16(c) provides that an employment discrimi nation complaint against the Federal Government under Title VII must be filed "[w]ithin thirty days of receipt of notice of final action taken" by the EEOC. The Court of Appeals determined that a notice of final action is "received" when the EEOC delivers its notice to a claimant or the claimant's attorney, whichever comes first. Id., at 1094. Petitioner argues that the clock does not begin until the claimant himself has notice of his right to sue.

We conclude that Irwin's complaint filed in the District Court was untimely. As the Court of Appeals observed, 2000e-16(c) requires only that the EEOC notification letter be "received"; it does not specify receipt by the claimant rather than by the claimant's designated representative. There is no question but that petitioner appeared by his attorney in the EEOC proceeding. Under our system of representative litigation, "each party is deemed bound by the acts of his lawyer-agent and is considered to have `notice of all facts, notice of which can be charged upon the attorney.' " Link v. Wabash R. Co., 370 U.S. 626, 634 (1962) (quoting Smith v. Ayer, 101 U.S. 320, 326 (1880)). Congress has endorsed this sensible practice in the analogous provisions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provide that "[w]henever under these rules service is required or per mitted to be made upon a party represented by an attorney the service shall be made upon the attorney unless service upon the party is ordered by the court." Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 5(b). To read the term "receipt" to mean only "actual receipt by the claimant" would render the practice of notifi cation through counsel a meaningless exercise. If Congress intends to depart from the common and established practice of providing notification through counsel, it must do so expressly. See Decker v. Anheuser-Busch, 632 F. 2d 1221, 1224 (CA5 1980).

We also reject Irwin's contention that there is a material difference between receipt by an attorney and receipt by that attorney's office for purposes of 2000e-16(c). The lower federal courts have consistently held that notice to an attorney's office which is acknowledged by a representative of that office qualifies as notice to the client. See Ringgold v. National Maintenance Corp., 796 F. 2d 769 (CA5 1986); Josiah-Faeduwor v. Communications Satellite Corp., 251 U. S. App. D. C. 346, 785 F. 2d 344 (1986). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5(b) also permits notice to a litigant to be made by delivery of papers to the litigant's attorney's office. The practical effect of a contrary rule would be to encourage factual disputes about when actual notice was received, and thereby create uncertainty in an area of the law where certainty is much to be desired.

The fact that petitioner did not strictly comply with 2000e-16(c)'s filing deadline does not, however, end our inquiry. Petitioner contends that even if he failed to timely file, his error may be excused under equitable tolling principles. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument on the ground that the filing period contained in 2000e-16(c) is jurisdictional, and therefore the District Court lacked authority to consider his equitable claims. The court reasoned that 2000e-16(c) applies to suits against the Federal Government and thus is a condition of Congress' waiver of sovereign immunity. Since waivers of sovereign immunity are traditionally construed narrowly, the court determined that strict compliance with 2000e-16(c) is a necessary predicate to a Title VII suit.

Respondent correctly observes that 2000(e)-16(c) is a condition to its waiver of sovereign immunity and thus must be strictly construed. See Library of Congress v. Shaw, 478 U.S. 310 (1986). But our previous cases dealing with the effect of time limits in suits against the Government have not been entirely consistent, even though the cases may be distinguished on their facts. In United States v. Locke, 471 U.S. 84, 94, n. 10 (1985), we stated that we were leaving open the general question of whether principles of equitable tolling, waiver, and estoppel apply against the Government when it involves a statutory filing deadline. But, as Justice White points out in his concurring opinion, nearly thirty years earlier in Soriano v. United States, 352 U.S. 270 (1957), we held the petitioner's claim to be jurisdictionally barred, saying that "Congress was entitled to assume that the limitation period it prescribed meant just that and no more." 352 U. S., at 276. More recently, in Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 479 (1986), we explained that "we must be careful not to `assume the authority to narrow the waiver that Congress intended,' or construe the waiver `unduly restrictively' " (citation omitted).

Title 42 U.S.C. 2000e-16(c) provides in relevant part:

"Within thirty days of receipt of notice of final action taken by . . . the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission . . . an employee or applicant for employment, if aggrieved by the final disposition of his complaint, or by the failure to take final action on his complaint, may file a civil action as provided in section 2000e-5 of this title . . . ."

The phraseology of this particular statutory time limit is probably very similar to some other statutory limitations on suits against the Government, but probably not to all of them. In the present statute, Congress said that "within thirty days . . . an employee . . . may file a civil action . . . ." In Soriano, supra, Congress provided that "every claim . . . shall be barred unless the petition . . . is filed . . . within six years . . . ." An argument can undoubtedly be made that the latter language is more stringent than the former, but we are not persuaded that the difference between them is enough to manifest a different congressional intent with respect to the availability of equitable tolling. Thus a continuing effort on our part to decide each case on an ad hoc basis, as we appear to have done in the past, would have the disadvantage of continuing unpredictability without the corresponding advantage of greater fidelity to the intent of Congress. We think that this case affords us an opportunity to adopt a more general rule to govern the applicability of equitable tolling in suits against the Government.

Time requirements in law suits between private litigants are customarily subject to "equitable tolling," Hallstrom v. Tillamook County, 493 U. S. —, — (slip op. 6) (1989). Indeed, we have held that the statutory time limits applicable to lawsuits against private employers under Title VII are subject to equitable tolling. [n.2]

A waiver of sovereign immunity " `cannot be implied but must be unequivocally expressed.' " United States v. Mitchell, 445 U.S. 535, 538 (1980) (quoting United States v. King, 395 U.S. 1, 4 (1969)). Once Congress has made such a waiver, we think that making the rule of equitable tolling applicable to suits against the Government, in the same way that it is applicable to private suits, amounts to little, if any, broadening of the congressional waiver. Such a principle is likely to be a realistic assessment of legislative intent as well as a practically useful principle of interpretation. We therefore hold that the same rebuttable presumption of equitable tolling applicable to suits against private defendants should also apply to suits against the United States. Congress, of course, may provide otherwise if it wishes to do so.

But an examination of the cases in which we have applied the equitable tolling doctrine as between private litigants affords petitioner little help. Federal courts have typically extended equitable relief only sparingly. We have allowed equitable tolling in situations where the claimant has actively pursued his judicial remedies by filing a defective pleading during the statutory period, [n.3] or where the complainant has been induced or tricked by his adversary's misconduct into allowing the filing deadline to pass. [n.4] We have generally been much less forgiving in receiving late filings where the claimant failed to exercise due diligence in preserving his legal rights. Baldwin County Welcome Center v. Brown, 466 U.S. 147, 151 (1984). Because the time limits imposed by Congress in a suit against the Government involve a waiver of sovereign immunity, it is evident that no more favorable tolling doctrine may be employed against the Government than is employed in suits between private litigants.

Petitioner urges that his failure to file in a timely manner should be excused because his lawyer was absent from his office at the time that the EEOC notice was received, and that he thereafter filed within 30 days of the day on which he personally received notice. But the principles of equitable tolling described above do not extend to what is at best a garden variety claim of excusable neglect.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is accordingly

Affirmed.

Justice Souter took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.


Notes

1 See Martinez v. Orr, 738 F. 2d 1107 (CA10 1984); Milam v. U. S. Postal Service, 674 F. 2d 860 (CA11 1982); Saltz v. Lehman, 217 U. S. App. D. C. 354, 672 F. 2d 207 (1982); and Boddy v. Dean, 821 F. 2d 346-350 (CA6 1987).

2 See Zipes v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 455 U.S. 385, 394 (1982); Crown, Cork & Seal, Co. v. Parker, 462 U.S. 345, 349 n. 3 (1983).

3 See Burnett v. New York Central R. Co., 380 U.S. 424 (1965) (plain- tiff timely filed complaint in wrong court); Herb v. Pitcairn, 325 U.S. 77 (1945) (same); American Pipe & Construction Co. v. Utah, 414 U.S. 538 (1974) (plaintiff's timely filing of an individual action tolled the limitations period in a related class action claim).

4 See Glus v. Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal, 359 U.S. 231 (1959) (adversary's misrepresentation caused plaintiff to let filing period lapse); Holmberg v. Armbrecht, 327 U.S. 392 (1946) (same).