A statute of limitations can end a case before it begins.  But which limitations period applies?  In its recent opinion in Woody v. Accuquest Hearing Center, LLC, COA21-563 (2022), the North Carolina Court of Appeals tackled this question in a suit involving employment law.  The majority, addressing an issue of first impression, found for the plaintiff but a dissent may send the question to the Supreme Court of North Carolina.

When one of the defendant’s employees, who was responsible for depositing the day’s receipts, became unavailable, the plaintiff, who had been diagnosed with a heart condition and was scheduled for surgery the next day, covered for that employee and took the money to the bank.  However, the bank was closed when the plaintiff arrived, so she took the money home for safekeeping.  Following her surgery, the plaintiff was out of work for a week, recuperating.  When she went back to work, she returned the funds to the defendant.

A month later, the plaintiff, again covered for another employee, picking up the day’s deposit and delivering it to the bank when it opened.  Later that day, the defendant fired the plaintiff, allegedly for multiple procedural violations.  Although the plaintiff asked for and was promised a written explanation for her termination, she never received one.

The plaintiff brought suit, alleging that under common law the defendant had wrongfully terminated her in violation of public policy.  Specifically, she claimed that the state’s public policy was set forth in the Equal Employment Practices Act (EEPA), N.C.G.S. §143-422.2, and the Persons With Disabilities Protection Act (PDPA), N.C.G.S. §168A-1 et seq.  Even though North Carolina is an employment-at-will state, the EEPA declares that the state’s public policy is to protect employees from discrimination based upon race, sex, religion, or other named factors, including “handicap.”  The PDPA, enacted several years after the EEPA, generally declares that the state’s public policy protects workers from discrimination based upon “a disabling condition.”

The defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the PDPA not only provided the plaintiff’s sole remedy but also established a 180-day statute of limitations, thus preempting the common-law statute of limitations of three years applicable to common law claims for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, found in N.C.G.S. §1-52(1) and applied in Winston v. Livingstone College, Inc., 210 N.C. App. 486, 707 S.E.2d 768 (2011).  The trial court agreed with the defendant and dismissed the plaintiff’s claim with prejudice. 

On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded in a split decision.  The majority (Judges Zachary and Arrowood) first addressed the issue of the applicable statute of limitations.  It observed that while employment at will does not permit the firing of an employee for a reason that violates the state’s public policy, the General Assembly may enact an exclusive statutory remedy that trumps a common-law remedy.  Thus, the majority considered whether the PDPA’s limitations period was exclusive. 

After reviewing the history of both the EEPA and the PDPA, the majority turned to Amos v. Oakdale Knitting Co., 331 N.C. 348, 357, 416 S.E.2d 166, 171 (1992), where the Supreme Court of North Carolina held that “the availability of alternative common law and statutory remedies…supplements rather than hinders the ultimate goal of protecting employees who have been fired in violation of public policy.”  The majority added that the Supreme Court has also observed that “if a statute is remedial in nature, seeking to advance the remedy and repress the evil[,] it must be liberally construed to effectuate the intent of the legislature.”  Misenheimer v. Burris, 360 N.C. 620, 637 S.E.2d 173 (2006).  The majority also declined the defendant’s invitation to find in the PDPA an implicit preclusion of the common-law statute of limitations.  Accordingly, the majority held that the trial court “erred as a matter of law by concluding that the PDPA’s 180-day statute of limitations bars [p]laintiff’s common-law claim of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.”

The majority next considered the defendant’s argument that the plaintiff failed to allege sufficient facts to establish that she is a member of the class of disabled individuals protected by the EEPA and the PDPA.  Although the EEPA states that its policy is to protect against discrimination based upon a “handicap,” the statute does not define that term.  However, the Court of Appeals previously has held that “handicap” overlaps with the PDPA’s definition of a “person with a disability.”  McCullough v. Branch Banking and Tr. Co., 136 N.C. App. 340, 524 S.E.2d 569 (2000).   Construing the plaintiff’s complaint liberally and taking the allegations as true, the majority found that the plaintiff’s complaint was adequate to state a claim for relief, even though the complaint did not include the word “substantially” in its description of the extent to which the plaintiff’s condition affected her life.

Judge Dillon dissented.  He first examined the wording of the PDPA, which is silent as to whether its remedies are exclusive.  Citing the requirement in Amos that courts consider the purpose for which the General Assembly enacted a statute, he pointed out that the PDPA provides a comprehensive range of remedies both for those fired or not hired on the basis of disability and also for those refusing to work under discriminatory conditions.  Determining that the PDPA not only restated the public policies found in the earlier-enacted EEPA but also added additional rights, he argued that the 180-day statute of limitations in the PDPA is exclusive.

Judge Dillon also addressed the plaintiff’s complaint, contending that she failed to allege facts sufficient to establish that she was in a class protected by the EEPA and the PDPA.  The PDPA defines a person with a disability as one whose physical impairment “substantially limits one or more major life activities.”  The dissent contends that the complaint failed adequately to allege that the effect of plaintiff’s condition was “substantial.”

Those who practice employment law should read the majority and dissenting opinions, both of which are lengthy and contain careful and detailed analysis.  The majority opinion allows the plaintiff relief but the dissent’s opposing argument is carefully wrought.  The doctrine of employment at will is deeply embedded in North Carolina but the General Assembly has the authority to create specific employment-based statutes of limitations.  Because the dissent gives the defendant the right to take its arguments to the Supreme Court of North Carolina, we may receive a definitive answer to the question of the correct limitations period.

–Bob Edmunds