One of Judge Kloppenburg’s First Opinions Favors Employee over Employer in WFMLA Case

In one of her first published decisions involving businesses, newly elected Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg overturned a Dane County Circuit Court decision dismissing a lawsuit against Kraft Foods Global, Inc because it was not timely filed.

The case involved a complaint by an employee against Kraft Foods for an alleged violation of the Wisconsin Family and Medical Leave Act (WFMLA). The Wisconsin Equal Rights Division ruled in favor of the employee and ordered Kraft Foods to pay the employee over $18,000 for loss of back pay, along with another $12,000 for attorney’s fees and costs.

The employee later filed a civil complaint in Dane County Circuit Court to recover damages, which is permitted under the WFMLA. However, the WFMLA provides that the complaint must be filed “within 60 days from the completion of an administrative proceeding, including judicial review…” The employee filed the complaint 88 days after the decision and order issued by the Equal Rights Division. As a result, Kraft Foods sought dismissal of the civil complaint based on it not being filed within the proper statutory timeline.

The Dane County Circuit Court agreed with Kraft Foods and dismissed the complaint as being untimely. The circuit court held that the civil complaint was brought more than 60 days after the Equal Rights Division’s order. The court of appeals, however, reversed the circuit court.

According to Judge Kloppenburg, under the statute (Wis. Stat. § 103.10(13)(b)1.), the employee has 60 days within which to file a civil complaint after the last day of the judicial review time period – which is 30 days after the Equal Rights Division issued its order.

Under the statute, an aggrieved party has 30 days to file judicial review of the Equal Rights Division’s order and decision. However, in this case, Kraft Foods did not appeal, thus the 30-day judicial review timeline was not triggered.

Despite this fact, the court of appeals held that the 60-day timeline to file the complaint began to run on the last day that Kraft Foods could have filed the petition for judicial review. In essence, the court of appeals gave the employee 90 days within which to file the civil complaint, rather than 60 days.

The Equal Rights Division’s final order was issued on May 13, 2011. The employee didn’t file the civil complaint until August 9, 2011 – 88 days after the original order and decision.

Judge Kloppenburg was joined by Judges Paul Lundsten and Brian Blanchard. The case is Hoague v. Kraft Foods Global, Inc.

This post was originally published by the the Wisconsin Civil Justice Counil on its Court Watch blog.