Monday, November 3, 2008

Administrative exhaustion requirements strictly enforced in Title VII claim

Some cases do not get out of the starting gate. That's because an administrative filing requirement has to be satisfied. This is the case in employment discrimination lawsuits under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It's the reason why a Title VII case arising from a post office dispute was dismissed.

The case is Mathirampuzha v. Potter, decided on November 3. Plaintiff worked at the post office. His boss assaulted him on the job. Plaintiff claims the assault was for discriminatory reasons, so he brings an internal EEO complaint with his employer, as required when you work for the Federal government and want to pursue a discrimination claim. But the problem is that the internal EEO complaint does not raise a slew of other allegedly discriminatory actions against plaintiff. So when he brings his lawsuit in Federal court, the question is whether the court has authority to hear these other claims.

The general rule is that your administrative EEO complaint has to raise all your issues. The same rule applies if you work in the private sector and have to file an administrative charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If you leave out certain claims in the administrative filing, however, the Federal court can still consider them if those omitted claims are reasonably related to the claims that you did raise in the EEO/EEOC filing. The reason for this is that the omitted claims might fall within the scope of the administrative investigation into the claim that you expressly filed. A thorough investigation might necessarily include an investigation into the omitted claims which the investigator stumbles upon.

This exception to the requirement that plaintiffs fully exhaust all their claims in the administrative process before filing suit in Federal court has its limits. Those limits are explored in this case. The plaintiff's claim that a manager went postal against him in the post office for discriminatory reasons is not reasonably related to his other claims (not alleged in the EEO charge) that the assault was retaliatory or that his manager had verbally harassed him, denied him lunch breaks and other privileges and subjected him to a hostile work environment. In dismissing the plaintiff's claims other than the assault charge, the Court of Appeals reasons, "We do not think that the plaintiff's allegation of a single incident of aggression by Sacco could reasonably be expected to blossom into an investigation covering allegations of unrelated misconduct by Sacco dating back several years."

In other words, plaintiff's claim that he was assaulted for discriminatory reasons is too discrete from the other, omitted claims relating to longstanding harassment and discriminatory job actions. In order to pursue the other claims in court, he had to raise them in his EEO charge. In making its point, the Court of Appeals cites a recent Supreme Court case on the issue of statutes of limitation and sexual harassment, Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101 (2002), for the proposition that hostile work environment claims are different from discrete acts like promotion denials and job terminations.

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