By Jonathan H. Krol and Thomas N. Spyker

Ohio’s Eighth District Court of Appeals (Cuyahoga County) recently upheld a defendant-employer’s grant of summary judgment, finding that an employee’s use of union grievance procedures did not toll the 180-day statute of limitations to bring an age discrimination claim under R.C. 4112.02.  Additionally, the Court rejected the employee’s argument that the trial court should have allowed him to amend his complaint to bring a claim under R.C. 4112.14, which has a six-year statute of limitations.  

In Juergens v. House of LaRose, Inc., 8th Dist. No. 106972, 2019-Ohio-94, Defendant-employer LaRose terminated Plaintiff Ralph Juergens’s employment in writing on March 6, 2017.  The same day, Juergens, a union member, utilized the grievance procedure outlined in the collective bargaining agreement between LaRose and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Union, Local 293, to file a grievance alleging his employment “was terminated, unjustified and without just cause.”

Juergens’s grievance sought reinstatement and backpay.  Ultimately LaRose denied his grievance on March 13, 2017.  On March 23, 2017, the union informed Juergens it would not take the denial decision to arbitration—a decision which effectively exhausted his internal appeals. 

On September 21, 2017—199 days after he was informed in writing of his termination—Juergens filed a lawsuit alleging age discrimination under R.C. 4112.02.  LaRose filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the claim was time barred, while Juergens argued that the 180-day statute of limitations was tolled during the union’s grievance procedure.  In the alternative, Juergens sought leave to amend his complaint to plead age discrimination under R.C. 4112.14, availing himself of that section’s six-year statute of limitations.

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion and entered summary judgment on the statute of limitations issue and denied leave to amend.   On appeal, the Eighth District analyzed (1) whether the union grievance procedure tolled the statute of limitations under R.C. 4112.02 and (2) whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying Juergens’s motion to amend. 

The question of tolling was an issue of first impression for the Court.  The Court adhered to a growing body of case law recognizing that internal non-mandatory grievance procedures do not extend the statute of limitations to file a wrongful termination action. 

The Court was unpersuaded by Juergens’s tolling argument, which relied heavily on a Sixth Circuit case (Garrish v. Intl. Union, 417 F.3d 590 (6th Cir. 2005)) analyzing portions of the Federal Labor Management Relations Act (“FLMR”).  In Garrish, the Sixth Circuit found the use of grievance procedures tolled the statute of limitations.  However, the Eighth District highlighted an important distinction: The FLMR required an employee to exhaust all administrative remedies prior to suing—while there is no such requirement under R.C. 4112.02.

The Eighth District held that an internal grievance process does not extend the statute of limitations under R.C. 4112.02. 2019-Ohio-94 at ¶31, citing Internatl. Union of Elec. v. Robbins & Myers, Inc., 429 U.S. 229, (1976); Chance v. Mahoning Cty., 105 F. App'x 644 (6th Cir. 2004).  Applying this standard and finding that Juergens was undoubtedly terminated on March 6, 2017 (after all, Juergens himself admitted such when he filed his grievance requesting “reinstatement”), the Court held his complaint was time-barred.

Turning to Juergens’s second assignment or error, the Court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying his motion to amend to bring a claim under R.C. 4112.14 because Juergens clearly elected to bring his case under R.C. 4112.02. 

Both R.C. 4112.02 and .14 provide a civil action for age discrimination, but a plaintiff must elect which section to proceed under as they are mutually exclusive.  This exclusivity is expressly built into the statutory language of both sections.  See R.C. 4112.02(L)(a); R.C. 4122.14(B).   

The Court’s statutory interpretation is straightforward and adheres to well-established precedent.  Notably, however, the Eighth District essentially locked in Juergens’s chosen statutory remedy at the pleading stage by affirming the denial of his request to amend.  The Court held that Juergens’s complaint was unambiguously labeled as an action pursuant to R.C. 4112.02, and his clear election to proceed under 4112.02 barred him from bringing a claim under 4112.14, even by way of amendment.  It is important to point out that the Court, although using strong language to reach its conclusion, was reviewing the trial court’s decision for abuse of discretion.  Thus, it remains unclear if a trial court is within its discretion to allow a motion to amend under these or similar circumstances. 

The Juergens decision further develops age discrimination jurisprudence in Ohio.  In particular, it helps to clarify the procedural interplay between the various statutes at issue and what effect, if any, pre-suit internal grievance procedures may have on the statute of limitations analysis. 

If you have any questions regarding Juergens v. House of LaRose, Inc., or if you wish a copy of this opinion or otherwise have a question regarding discrimination or statute of limitations analysis in the employment context, please feel free to call any one of our Employment Practices Liability Group Members.

This has been prepared for informational purposes only. It does not contain legal advice or legal opinion and should not be relied upon for individual situations. Nothing herein creates an attorney-client relationship between the Reader and Reminger. The information in this document is subject to change and the Reader should not rely on the statements in this document without first consulting legal counsel.


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