In Belony, the Fourth District Court of Appeal concluded that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies under the FCRA where his EEOC discrimination charge only alleged a violation of Title VII and did not refer to any state law violation.Summary of this case from Narvaez v. Fla. Health Scis. Ctr.
Peter M. Hoogerwoerd and Corey L. Seldin of Remer, Georges-Pierre & Hoogerwoerd, PLLC, Coral Gables, for appellant. Matthew D. Stefany of Allen Norton & Blue, P.A., Tampa, for appellee.
Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.
Appeal from the Circuit Court for the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit, Broward County; Michael A. Robinson, Judge; L.T. Case No. CACE-21-006736.
Peter M. Hoogerwoerd and Corey L. Seldin of Remer, Georges-Pierre & Hoogerwoerd, PLLC, Coral Gables, for appellant.
Matthew D. Stefany of Allen Norton & Blue, P.A., Tampa, for appellee.
Kreiger Belony appeals the final order dismissing with prejudice his complaint for gender discrimination and retaliation against his former employer, North Broward Hospital District ("Broward Health"). Belony's complaint alleged violations of the Florida Civil Rights Act ("FCRA"). We conclude the trial court correctly dismissed the complaint for failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the FCRA.
The underlying discrimination claim stems from allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation occurring while Belony was employed at Broward Health. Following his termination, Belony filed a charge of discrimination against Broward Health with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). On the EEOC Charge of Discrimination form, Belony checked the Fair Employment Practices Agency ("FEPA") box and stated he wanted to file the charge with both the EEOC and the Florida Commission on Human Rights ("FCHR"). In addition to checking the "sex" and "retaliation" discrimination boxes, the charge included a narrative recounting the alleged discrimination which Belony suffered from his former manager's actions at Broward Health. The narrative concluded with the following relevant statement: "Claimant believes that he has been discriminated against in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964." It is undisputed that the charge specifically referenced federal law only.
Ultimately, the EEOC declined to pursue the charge and issued Belony a "right to sue" letter. The letter advised Belony he had the right to pursue his discrimination claim by filing a private suit in federal court within 90 days from the date of receipt of the letter. Instead of pursuing his claim in federal court, Belony filed the underlying lawsuit against Broward Health in state court for sexual harassment and retaliation in violation of sections 760.10(1)(a) and 760.10(7), Florida Statutes (2019). The complaint also alleged Belony exhausted all administrative remedies before filing his state court action.
Broward Health moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because Belony failed to exhaust his administrative remedies under the FCRA. Specifically, Broward Health argued Belony failed to allege a violation of the FCRA in the charge of discrimination, as required under section 760.11, Florida Statutes (2019). Moreover, Broward Health argued that dually filing the charge of discrimination with the EEOC and the FCHR, without also specifically alleging a violation of the FCRA in the charge, was insufficient to satisfy the statutory prerequisite. The trial court agreed with Broward Health and, following a hearing, dismissed the action with prejudice.
On appeal, both parties agree that "[p]rior to filing a civil action alleging discrimination in violation of the FCRA, the individual seeking relief must file a complaint with the [FCHR] within 365 days of the alleged violation and exhaust the administrative remedies provided by the FCRA." Sheridan v. State, Dep't of Health, 182 So.3d 787, 789 (Fla. 1st DCA 2016). The parties also agree that the discrimination charge in this case did not specifically assert a violation of the FCRA or reference Florida law. The dispute on appeal is whether the discrimination charge sufficiently put the FCHR and Broward Health on notice that Belony was alleging an FCRA violation when the charge only referenced Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Belony argues the notice was sufficient, reasoning "if the FEPA box is checked and the charging party indicates that the charge should be dual filed with another agency, that is all that is required." Broward Health counters the notice was insufficient, reasoning "[i]t is axiomatic that an employer cannot be placed on notice that a claimant is claiming a violation of the FCRA when his charge only asserts a violation of federal law." We agree with Broward Health.
Section 760.11, Florida Statutes (2019), establishes administrative and civil remedies for violations of the FCRA. Section 760.11(1) provides that "[a]ny person aggrieved by a violation of ss. 760.01-760.10 may file a complaint with the [FCHR] within 365 days of the alleged violation . . . ." § 760.11(1), Fla. Stat. (2019). As an alternative to filing a charge of discrimination directly with the FCHR, the statute authorizes the filing of "a complaint under this section.... with the federal [EEOC] or with any unit of government of the state which is a fair-employment-practice agency." Id. "The complaint shall contain a short and plain statement of the facts describing the violation and the relief sought." Id. "In the event that the [FCHR] determines that there is reasonable cause to believe that a discriminatory practice has occurred in violation of the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992, the aggrieved person may either: (a) [b]ring a civil action against the person named in the complaint in any court of competent jurisdiction; or (b) [r]equest an administrative hearing under ss. 120.569 and 120.57." § 760.11(4), Fla. Stat. (2019).
Our plain reading of section 760.11, Florida Statutes (2019), compels us to conclude that the statutory prerequisite to bringing a civil lawsuit for an FCRA violation is premised on the claimant asserting a violation in a form sufficient to put the employer on notice that the claimant is alleging a violation of Florida law. See White v. City of Pompano Beach, 813 So.2d 1003, 1007 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002) ("If the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous . . . it should be given its plain meaning."). Merely asserting a violation of federal law in a charge of discrimination and dually filing the charge with the FCHR is insufficient to satisfy the statute's requirements because "a cause of action founded on a federal statute is not the same cause of action as one founded on a state statute, even where both statutes apply to the same transaction or occurrence." Andujar v. Nat'l Prop. &Cas. Underwriters, 659 So.2d 1214, 1216-17 (Fla. 4th DCA 1995) ("Whatever may be the similarities and differences between [Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Florida Civil Rights Act], it is clear that a claim made under the one statute is not the same cause of action as a claim made under the other. They arise from separate rights recognized and protected by different sovereigns."); see also Santini v. Cleveland Clinic Fla., 843 So.2d 1029, 1033 (Fla. 4th DCA 2003) ("Both the local and the federal agency levels apply their own civil rights legislation to determine, under their separate acts, whether a civil rights violation has occurred.").
In this case, the discrimination charge specifically alleged a violation of "Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964." Absent from the charge is any reference to a state law violation. Under this factual scenario, one would reasonably assume the claimant only intended to bring a discrimination charge under federal law. Concluding otherwise would leave the employer having to guess whether the claimant also intended to bring a charge under Florida law.
Accordingly, the trial court correctly determined it lacked subject matter jurisdiction because Belony failed to exhaust his administrative remedies under the FCRA. See Pushkin v. Lombard, 279 So.2d 79, 82 (Fla. 3d DCA 1973) (recognizing that the "failure to exhaust administrative remedies . . . goes to the very subject matter jurisdiction of the court to hear a matter"). Our holding should not be interpreted to mean that a discrimination charge must specifically reference Florida law. Rather, our holding is intended to clarify that when a discrimination charge only and specifically alleges a violation of federal law, the act of dually filing the charge with the FCHR is insufficient to comply with the requirements of section 760.11, Florida Statutes (2019).
WARNER and GROSS, JJ., concur.