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Escobedo v. Applebees

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

June 4, 2015

MARIA ESCOBEDO, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
APPLEBEES, Defendant, and APPLE AMERICAN GROUP; APPLE NEVADA, LLC, Defendants-Appellee

Argued and Submitted, Pasadena, California November 18, 2014.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Nevada. D.C. No. 2:11-cv-00895-PMP-CWH. Philip M. Pro, Senior District Judge, Presiding.

SUMMARY[**]

Labor Law

The panel reversed the district court's (1) dismissal of a Title VII action as untimely and (2) denial of an application to proceed in forma pauperis.

The panel held that for purposes of the ninety-day filing limit set forth in 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(1), the filing date of a complaint is the date it is delivered to the court clerk, whether it is submitted with or without an in forma pauperis application.

The panel further held that it is an abuse of discretion to deny an in forma pauperis application based upon a spouse's financial resources, unless there is a reasonable inquiry into (a) whether the spouse's resources are actually available to the would-be plaintiff and (b) whether the spouse in fact has sufficient funds, given his or her own expenses, to assist in paying the fee.

Katelin Eastman (argued) and Sarah Gerdes (argued), Pepperdine University School of Law, Ninth Circuit Appellate Advocacy Clinic, Malibu, California; Jeremy B. Rosen, Horvitz & Levy LLP, Encino, California, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Melissa Leigh Griffin (argued) and Beth Freuchtenicht Aney, San Francisco, California, for Defendants-Appellees.

Before: Kim McLane Wardlaw and Richard A. Paez, Circuit Judges, and Michael A. Ponsor,[*] Senior District Judge.

OPINION

Page 1227

PONSOR, Senior District Judge:

Appellant Maria Escobedo, acting pro se, submitted her complaint, charging Appellee Apple Nevada with sexual harassment and discrimination, to the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada on June 2, 2011. The complaint arrived at the clerk's office sixty-nine days after Escobedo received her right-to-sue letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, well within the ninety-day

Page 1228

limit set forth in 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(1).[1]

Along with her complaint, Escobedo filed an application to proceed in forma pauperis (" IFP" ). Thirty-four days later, on July 6, 2011, outside the ninety-day deadline, a magistrate judge first heard argument on the application and erroneously denied it, based upon ungrounded assumptions regarding the availability of Escobedo's husband's resources. During the hearing, however, the magistrate judge told Escobedo that she would have an additional thirty days to pay the $350 fee. Escobedo paid the fee on August 5, 2011, within the allotted thirty days. Despite this, the district court subsequently dismissed her complaint for violating the ninety-day limitations period.

Escobedo (represented bycounsel) contends, first, that the district court erred in dismissing her complaint as untimely and, second, that the magistrate judge erred in denying her IFP application. We agree on both points and reverse.[2]

We now hold that the filing date of a complaint is the date it is delivered to the clerk, whether it is submitted with or without an IFP application. Obviously, if an IFP application is submitted with the complaint in lieu of the filing fee, and the application is thereafter denied, the district court will be free to dismiss the complaint if the fee is not paid within a reasonable time following the denial. The filing date, however, will be the date on which the complaint was originally delivered to the clerk's office along with the IFP application.

We further hold that it is an abuse of discretion to deny an IFP application based upon a spouse's financial resources, unless there is a reasonable inquiry into (a) whether the spouse's resources are actually available to the would-be plaintiff and (b) whether the spouse in fact has sufficient funds, given his or her own expenses, to assist in paying the fee.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Escobedo worked as a prep cook for seven years at an Applebee's restaurant in Las Vegas, Nevada owned by Apple Nevada. On November 3, 2010, Escobedo reported to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that her employer had subjected her to sexual harassment, discrimination on the basis of her gender and national origin, and retaliation. A review of her claims reveals that they could not, by any means, be characterized as frivolous. EEOC records apparently suggest that a letter may have gone out to Escobedo on December 16, 2010, containing a Notice of Right to Sue. Escobedo never received it. On January 30, 2011, Applebee's fired Escobedo. In March 2011, concerned that she had not heard anything, Escobedo contacted the EEOC. On March 25, 2011, the EEOC

Page 1229

sent out, and Escobedo for the first time received, a copy of the Notice of Right to Sue[3]

On June 2, 2011, sixty-nine days after receiving the right-to-sue letter, Escobedo submitted her pro se complaint to the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada, bringing claims of sexual harassment and discrimination on the basis of gender and national origin against Applebee's.[4] With her complaint, Escobedo filed an IFP application, in which she certified that she could not pay the filing fee for her complaint because of her poverty. She stated in her application that she had income of $210 per week and paid $684 per month in rent, as well as $15 a month on existing credit card debts. Given that these expenses left her with less than $150 per month for all other expenses, including food and medical costs, Escobedo contended that the $350 filing fee was sufficiently onerous that it should be waived.

On July 6, 2011, thirty-nine days after Escobedo filed her complaint, and 103 days after receiving her March 25 right-to-sue letter, Escobedo obtained a hearing before a magistrate judge on her IFP application. When asked by the judge how she paid $684 per month for rent when she only received $180 a week[5] in unemployment compensation, Escobedo replied that her husband helped with her housing expense. The magistrate judge next inquired into her husband's monthly income, which Escobedo stated was $1800 per month in social security benefits. Based on this information and the amount of Escobedo's income, the magistrate judge denied Escobedo's IFP application. The record does not reveal any inquiry by the magistrate judge as to whether her husband's financial resources were actually available to Escobedo (beyond the help with the cost of housing), or whether her husband had other offsetting legitimate expenses that would reduce or eliminate his ability to assist in paying the filing fee.

Following this, the magistrate judge set a deadline of August 5, 2011, for Escobedo to pay the fee. In this portion of the hearing, the magistrate judge and ...


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