FLETCHER, Circuit Judge:
Appellant Cooper, an employee of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), filed a complaint against the United States Attorney General alleging that he had been discriminated against in violation of section 717 of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16 (1976). Jurisdiction in the district court was based on 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-16(c) and (d) (1976). The district court judge, concluding that Cooper had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, dismissed for failure to state a claim for which relief could be granted. We have jurisdiction to review under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (1976). We reverse the district court and remand for further proceedings.
Cooper, a white male, was employed at the Los Angeles office of DEA as an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) coordinator. He was responsible for preparing and assisting in the implementation of EEO plans in the Western Region of DEA, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16 (1976) and 5 C.F.R. § 713.201 et seq. (1976).
On February 19, 1976, Cooper filed a grievance with DEA. He complained that his attempts to implement an EEO program had been met with suspicion and hostility and that Van Diver, the DEA Regional Director, and Azzam, the Deputy Regional Director, were intentionally frustrating the EEO program by subjecting Cooper to personal threats and other verbal abuse. He
On July 8, 1976, Cooper sent a letter of resignation to the agency's EEO Director, Rogers. The letter expressed Cooper's dissatisfaction with the disposition of his grievance and with the general lack of support for the EEO program.
Almost a year later, on May 31, 1977, Cooper, through an attorney, wrote to Rogers asserting that his letter of resignation had actually been an employment discrimination charge and asking Rogers to accept it for administrative consideration. Rogers replied that he could not accept the charge because Cooper had not brought it to the attention of an EEO counselor within thirty days of the alleged discriminatory conduct, as required by 5 C.F.R. § 713.214 (1976). Cooper subsequently met with an EEO counselor, but the matter could not be informally resolved.
Cooper then filed an employment discrimination complaint in federal district court, alleging as discrimination the interference and harassment he had previously described in his grievance and in his letter of resignation, and the refusal to grant him a promised transfer. In addition, Cooper alleged that Holder, an employee in DEA's personnel office, had told Cooper that a white male could not file an employment discrimination charge.
The government responded with a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), 12(b)(6), and 12(c), on the ground that Cooper had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. The judge granted the motion and dismissed the complaint. Cooper appeals from the dismissal.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
We treat the government's motion under rules 12(b)(1), 12(b)(6), and 12(c) as a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Accordingly, our review is limited to determining whether within the context of his complaint Cooper could have proved any set of facts entitling him to relief. Jablon v. Dean Witter & Co., 614 F.2d 677, 682 (9th Cir. 1980).
The difficulty Cooper faces is the government's contention that he cannot maintain his action because he has not timely filed his charge with the employing agency.
When this case arose, section 717 of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16 (1976), provided the exclusive remedy against discriminatory employment practices in the federal government.
Section 717 contemplates the invocation of administrative remedies as a condition precedent to litigation. Brown v. General Services Administration, 425 U.S. 820, 832, 96 S.Ct. 1961, 1967, 48 L.Ed.2d 402 (1976). Although the statute is silent as to the time period within which an initial administrative charge must be filed, the Civil Service Commission has promulgated regulations requiring an employee to bring his charge to the attention of an EEO counselor within thirty days of the alleged discriminatory conduct. 5 C.F.R. §§ 713.213(a), 713.214(a)(i) (1976).
Cooper did not contact an EEO counselor or file an administrative charge until almost a year after the alleged discriminatory conduct. He makes two arguments against dismissal of his complaint for this lapse.
First, he contends that his February, 1976 grievance and his July, 1976 letter of resignation were employment discrimination charges. However, the texts of the letters belie his argument. It is true that an employment discrimination charge should be construed liberally and that consequently the employee need not follow formal rules of pleading or make his allegation with legal precision, Kaplan v. Int'l Alliance of Theatrical & Stage Employees, 525 F.2d 1354, 1359 (9th Cir. 1975), but the charge must at least describe the facts and legal theory with sufficient clarity to notify the agency that employment discrimination is claimed. Scott v. Perry, 569 F.2d 1064 (9th Cir. 1978). The agency can then investigate, attempt conciliation, and, if necessary, engage the administrative process. See Shehadeh v. Chesapeake & Potomac Tel. Co., 595 F.2d 711, 727-28 (D.C.Cir. 1978). Here the judge properly concluded that neither the grievance nor the letter of resignation described the legal basis of the charge with sufficient clarity to notify DEA that Cooper complained of employment discrimination.
Cooper's second argument is that his failure to file a timely charge with the agency should be excused because he did not realize that he had a valid cause of action until after the thirty-day filing period had expired.
First, failure to comply may be excused if the plaintiff had neither official notice nor actual knowledge of the filing period. Bragg v. Reed, 592 F.2d 1136 (10th Cir. 1979); Ettinger v. Johnson, 556 F.2d 692, 697 (3d Cir. 1977), 5 C.F.R. § 713.214(a)(4)(i) (1976); Cooper did not allege that he was unaware of the filing period. Because Cooper's duties apparently included informing DEA employees of EEO procedural requirements, including the thirty-day filing period, 5 C.F.R. § 713.204(f)(4) (1976), such an allegation would have been frivolous.
Second, failure to comply with the filing period may be excused if the plaintiff was unaware that he was the object of discriminatory conduct. NLRB v. Don Burgess Constr. Corp., 596 F.2d 378, 382-83 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 940, 100 S.Ct. 293, 62 L.Ed.2d 306 (1979) (fraudulent concealment tolls a statute of limitations); Bickham v. Miller, 584 F.2d 736 (5th Cir. 1978); Reeb v. Economic Opportunity Atlanta, Inc., 516 F.2d 924, 931 (5th Cir. 1975). Cooper's grievance and letter of resignation reveal that he was long aware of all of the facts underlying his complaint.
Third, Cooper asserts equitable grounds for extension of the filing period, alleging in his complaint that a DEA personnel officer, Holder, had told Cooper that a white male could not file a discrimination charge. Cooper contends that his failure to file a discrimination charge within the filing period resulted from his reliance on this advice, thereby estopping the government from raising Cooper's failure to file a timely charge.
Courts have discussed the availability of such equitable extensions within the doctrinal framework of whether Title VII administrative filing periods are jurisdictional prerequisites or merely administrative equivalents of statutes of limitation.
The emerging consensus among the circuit courts seems to be that Title VII filing periods are subject to equitable extension. Bethel v. Jefferson, 589 F.2d 631, 641-42 (D.C.Cir. 1978) (Title VII time periods are analogous to statutes of limitation and hence may be equitably extended); Chappell v. Emco Machine Works Co., 601 F.2d 1295 (5th Cir. 1979) (equitable extension allowed even though the court classified the filing period as jurisdictional). Cf. Marshall v. Sun Oil (Delaware), 605 F.2d 1331, 1337-38 n.8 (5th Cir. 1979) (distinguishing Chappell v. Emco). But see In re Consolidated Proceedings in Airlines Cases, 582 F.2d 1142, 1150-51 (7th Cir. 1978); Guy v. Robbins & Myers, Inc., 525 F.2d 124, 127-28 (6th Cir. 1975), rev'd on other grounds sub nom. Electrical Workers v. Robbins & Myers, Inc., 429 U.S. 229, 97 S.Ct. 441, 50 L.Ed.2d 427 (1976).
This circuit has held with regard to the filing of a civil complaint after the rejection of a claim by the employing agency that the thirty-day filing period is "jurisdictional." Mahroom v. Hook, 563 F.2d 1369, 1374 (9th Cir. 1977), cert. denied, 436 U.S. 904, 98 S.Ct. 2234, 56 L.Ed.2d 402 (1978). See also Cleveland v. Douglas Aircraft Co., 509 F.2d 1027, 1030 (9th Cir. 1975); Wong v. The Bon Marche, 508 F.2d 1249, 1250 (9th Cir. 1975) (deadline for filing civil suit by private sector employees likewise jurisdictional). However, we favor treating at least the first intra-agency filing period for lodging the initial charge (the deadline Cooper missed) as the equivalent of a statute of limitation, subject to equitable extension in appropriate cases.
We now turn to Cooper's specific allegation that the government should be estopped — by Holder's misrepresentation and by Cooper's reliance on Holder's advice — from raising Cooper's failure to file a timely charge. We appreciate the trial judge's astonishment at Cooper's allegation that he had relied on another's interpretation of EEO regulations with which Cooper's duties as an EEO officer should have made him quite familiar. Nevertheless, we cannot say that, as a matter of law, Cooper would not prevail were he able to adduce sufficient evidence to substantiate the allegation. Accordingly, it was improper to dismiss at this stage, because dismissal foreclosed Cooper from any opportunity to prove his case. See Jablon v. Dean Witter & Co., 614 F.2d 677, 682 (9th Cir. 1980).
To establish a basis for estoppel against the government, Cooper must prove: (1) that Holder's advice constituted "affirmative misconduct," see Simon v. Califano, 593 F.2d 121, 123 (9th Cir. 1979); (2) that Cooper did not know nor reasonably should have known that a white male could file an employment discrimination complaint; (3) that Holder knew or reasonably should have known that the advice he imparted was false; (4) that Holder intended or reasonably should have foreseen that Cooper would rely on his advice; (5) that Cooper reasonably relied on Holder's advice; (6) that Cooper's reasonable reliance on Holder's advice was the cause of his failure to contact an EEO counselor within thirty days of the discriminatory conduct, and that the time within which he did file was reasonable in light of all the circumstances.
For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the district court is REVERSED, and the case is REMANDED for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
All of the Ninth Circuit cases that have referred to Title VII filing periods as "jurisdictional" have involved the third filing period. See Mahroom v. Hook, 563 F.2d 1369 (9th Cir. 1977), cert. denied, 436 U.S. 904, 98 S.Ct. 2234, 56 L.Ed.2d 402 (1978); Cleveland v. Douglas Aircraft Co., 509 F.2d 1027 (9th Cir. 1975); Wong v. The Bon Marche, 508 F.2d 1249 (9th Cir. 1975).