Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Surpeme Court defers to EEOC on the definition of a "Charge" of age discrimination

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued its second employment decision in as many days, as today it has issued its opinion in Federal Express v. Holowecki. [The opinion is available for download from the Court here.]

Recall that Holowecki raised the procedural issue of what constitutes a "charge" of discrimination submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The plaintiff submitted an Intake Questionnaire, with an accompanying affidavit, to the EEOC, which alleged that Fed Ex had committed age discrimination. She did not, however, file a Charge of Discrimination until 6 months later. In the interim, the EEOC neither assigned a charge number, nor informed Fed Ex that it had received the Intake Questionnaire. The issue was whether the Intake Questionnaire constituted a "Charge" sufficient to start the proceedings with the EEOC.

A 7-2 majority of the Court deferred to the EEOC's regulations and policy statements, and held that the Intake Questionnaire was a "Charge" because it could be reasonably construed as a request for the EEOC to take remedial action to protect the employee's rights or otherwise settle a dispute between the employer and the employee.

My problem with this ruling is that Fed Ex never had any meaningful way to respond to the Intake Questionnaire. That form was never sent to it, and it had no notice that a proceeding had even been initiated until after the actual charge was filed 6 months hence. Thus, an employee can proceed to federal court on an age discrimination class action lawsuit, without the employer, who had no notice that a charge had even been filed with the EEOC, having the benefit of trying to settle the claim pre-lawsuit. During the EEOC's conciliation process, the stakes are decidedly much lower than they are once an actual lawsuit is filed. For one thing, claimants usually are not represented by counsel at the EEOC. The same is rarely true in federal court. This decision prejudices employers who will be denied any opportunity to resolve a case via the EEOC's informal conciliation process. The majority attempts to cure this problem by suggesting that the trial court stay the case to allow for mediation. That stay, however, ignores the crucial differences between a mediation before as compared to after a federal court case has been filed.

In concluding his dissent, Justice Thomas hits a home run in summarizing the key problems with the majority opinion:

The implications of the Court's decision will reach far beyond respondent's case. Today's decision does nothing—absolutely nothing—to solve the problem that under the EEOC's current processes no one can tell, ex ante, whether a particular filing is or is not a charge. Given the Court's utterly vague criteria, whatever the agency later decides to regard as a charge is a charge—and the statutorily required notice to the employer and conciliation process will be evaded in the future as it has been in this case. The Court's failure to apply a clear and sensible rule renders its decision of little use in future cases to complainants, employers, or the agency.

This decision will have limited impact in Ohio, because employees have a private right of action under Ohio law without first going to the EEOC. However, because age discrimination claims under Ohio Revised Code 4112.99 are subject to a short 180-day statute of limitations, the Holowecki decision could impact those employees who miss that relatively short statute and have to go the EEOC for relief to enable a federal court filing under the ADEA.