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Prepare unified defense; ruling may spark more state suits

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources

Because of a quirk in Pennsylvania law, employers may soon see an uptick in state-based employment lawsuits.

Reason: A federal court clarified that all state employment claims must be filed within the appropriate state statute of limitations (one year, for example, on defamation cases). Employees can't wait to file a state claim until the EEOC or the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) completes its investigation, the court said.

As a result, employees have more incentive to file state lawsuits before the state statutes of limitations run out, and then file federal lawsuits later after the EEOC/PHRC investigations.

Practical impact: If you face two related lawsuits, you may be forced to answer questions in a state court case that could be used against you later in federal court. So, get your story straight.

If you receive notice of either a lawsuit or an EEOC or PHRC complaint, immediately conduct an internal review of all evidence and prepare a uniform course of action for both cases. Answers given in one suit should match those in the other.

The case: Jane Burlingame, an HR director at a packaging company, accused her former employer of sex discrimination and defamation. She said the company fired her after years of harassment, then made false statements about her.

But Burlingame waited until the EEOC had considered her case before filing her federal lawsuit. The trial court tossed out her defamation claim, saying she had waited too long. Pennsylvania law says such suits must be filed within one year. Having a pending EEOC complaint doesn't stop the clock. (Burlingame v. Pretium Packaging, No. 1:05-CV-2469, MD PA, 2006)  

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