Wednesday, November 7, 2007

When is an EEOC charge a "charge"?

The U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing a Second Circuit ruling which broadly interprets the employment discrimination laws to allow plaintiffs to seek relief without technically complying with the requirements governing the filing of an administrative complaint. The case arises at a time when scholars are criticizing the Supreme Court for interpreting the civil rights laws in an overly technical manner.

The case is Federal Express v. Holowecki, 440 F.3d 558 (2d Cir. 2006). Last year, the Second Circuit reinstated an age discrimination lawsuit even though the plaintiff did not formally file the administrative complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which reviews and tries to settle discrimination cases before the plaintiff brings the lawsuit. Without first filing a complaint with the EEOC, the plaintiff cannot bring the lawsuit.

In Holowecki, the plaintiff instead filled out a lengthy questionaire with the EEOC outlining the nature of the case. The Second Circuit equated the questionaire with the formal charge that plaintiffs normally file with the EEOC. The issue may seem overly technical, but if the plaintiff neglects to file a formal charge within 300 days of the discrimination, he cannot bring the lawsuit in court. If the questionaire -- which elicits all the information the EEOC needs to process the case at the administrative level -- qualifies as a "charge," then doing so within 300 days preserves the plaintiff's right to bring the lawsuit later on.

The best argument in favor of dismissing Holowecki's case was that since he did not file a formal charge of discrimination, Federal Express did not know that he had gone to the EEOC. One of the reasons for the EEOC process is to allow the employer to investigate the allegations and possibly settle the case before it becomes a full-blown lawsuit. But the Second Circuit said that the real question is whether Holowecki signaled his intent to proceed with a charge of discrimination in completing the questionaire.

Oral argument at the Supreme Court on this case was held yesterday. According to a web site that tracks the Supreme Court, "Although the dispute in this case was nominally between defendant Fed Ex and plaintiff Holowecki, it was evident at oral argument that the Court held the EEOC at fault for creating the dispute both by issuing unclear guidance regarding what constitutes a charge of age discrimination and by implementing inconsistent enforcement practices under its regulations." Indeed, press reports suggest that Holowecki will prevail at the Supreme Court.

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