Factors that Toll the Statute of Limitations
GeneralThe statute of limitations can prevent a would-be plaintiff from suing. Each particular kind of claim has a particular amount of time to start the action, and, under New York law and under federal law, the statute of limitations clock is satisfied by the filing of an action in court. There are a variety of circumstances that will "toll" (or freeze) the statute of limitations. Among these circumstances are "equitable tolling" and "equitable estoppel."
Equitable Tolling and Equitable EstoppelEquitable tolling allows a plaintiff to file a claim beyond the limitations period if, due to some action or misrepresentation by the defendant, he was unaware that the cause of action existed. Similarly, equitable estoppel is available when defendant misrepresents a material fact, reasonably believing plaintiff will rely on that information, and plaintiff does so rely to his detriment. The difference between these two legal doctrines can sometimes be subtle. Equitable tolling applies in cases where the plaintiff is ignorant of the action because the defendant has fraudulently concealed it, while equitable estoppel applies when plaintiff knew of the existence of a cause of action, but the defendant's conduct caused him to delay in bringing his lawsuit.
Tolling the Limitations Period in Federal Labor and Employment Law CasesCaselaw in the Second Circuit (the region of the federal court system that includes New York) makes clear that for equitable tolling tolling to apply, the employer must prevent the employee in some extraordinary way from exercising his or her rights, or the employee must be actively misled by the employer and such conduct made the employee unaware of his or her rights.
Recently, a client informed me of a situation in which he had been laid off due to budget cuts in his department. He was 53 years of age at the time of the layoff, putting him within the protected age group (40 to 70) under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Several months later, when visiting his former employer, he learned that right after he was laid off, a younger person was hired to perform most duties that were within his job description. Such a circumstance should permit tolling of the date by which a charge must be filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.