Supreme Court clarifies the meaning of an employment discrimination charge

In order to bring an lawsuit for employment discrimination, you have to first file an administrative charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has authority to investigate and resolve the charge. The question is, What is an EEOC charge? Since the Age Discrimination in Employment Act does not define "charge," the Supreme Court was asked to determine if the EEOC's guidelines defining a "charge" are reasonable and whether an intake form could be treated as a charge. The employees win in the Supreme Court.

The case is Federal Express v. Holowecki, decided on February 27. This case affirms a ruling from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The EEOC's regulations state that, among other things, the discrimination charge must include the complainant's name and contact information, the name of the employer, and a narrative describing the discrimination. A "catch-all" provision in the regulations says that the charge need only name the employer and contain the narrative. In this case, Federal Express challenged the EEOC's regulations in an attempt to dismiss the case which did not have a proper EEOC charge. The Supreme Court, however, deferred to the EEOC's regulations and policy statements on this issue, concluding:

In addition to the information required by the regulations, i.e., an allegation and the name of the charged party, if afiling is to be deemed a charge it must be reasonably construed as a request for the agency to take remedial action to protect the employee’s rights or otherwise settle a dispute between the employer and the employee.

However, the Supreme Court rejects the argument that a filing with the EEOC is only a charge when the complainant intends to have the EEOC investigate and resolve the claim. The focus should not be on the discrimination victim's intent but how a reasonable person would interpret the charge. "The filing must be examined from the standpoint of an objective observer to determine whether, by a reasonable construction of its terms, the filer requests the agency to activate its machinery andremedial processes."

It is true, the Supreme Court says, that this generous interpretation of the word "charge" means that many informal complaints with the EEOC must be treated as charges and therefore investigated by the agency. But that's not a bad way to proceed, the Court suggests, since many of these charges are filed by non-lawyers who don't know all the rules. "The system must be accessible to individuals who have no detailed knowledge of the relevant statutory mechanisms and agency processes. It thus is consistent with the purposes of the Act that a charge can be a form, easy to complete, or an informal document, easy to draft."

In this case, the intake form filed with the EEOC qualifies as a "filing" under the Supreme Court's test, as the complaining employees described the discrimination and provided contact information. While the EEOC is not required to treat every intake form as a charge, the employees did include a statement to the EEOC requesting that the agency stop the age discrimination at Federal Express.

One other thing: the employer argued that the paperwork filed with the EEOC cannot be a charge unless the EEOC notified the employer of the claim. That usually happens in discrimination cases, but it did not happen here. The Supreme Court does not want the aggrieved employee to suffer the consequences of the EEOC's failure to do its job.