Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Ohio Supreme Court permits 3rd party discovery by employers in OCRC investigations

Often times, companies have to respond to administrative discrimination complaints in a vacuum. They have a vague understanding of the allegations based on the few sentences in the charge form, and are limited to the information in their own files and records. Companies rarely if ever have access to the OCRC's own materials, and discovery is not part of the process. In State ex rel. Am. Legion Post 25 v. Ohio Civ. Rights Comm., the Ohio Supreme Court opened the door to a whole new world of information to assist employers in defending against charges of discrimination, and held that at an employer's request the Ohio Civil Rights Commission must issue a subpoena during a preliminary investigation of an administrative complaint.

If you have been lucky to have never been part of an OCRC investigation, let me give you a quick summary of the process. Upon receipt of a complaint alleging discriminatory conduct, the Commission conducts a preliminary investigation into the allegations. The Commission's function during this first step is to discover evidence to determine if it is probable that an unlawful discriminatory practice has occurred. If the Commission determines there is no probable cause, it will dismiss the Charge. At that point, the employee has three options: 1) walk away; 2) appeal the dismissal to common pleas court; or 3) file a civil action under 4112.99. On the other hand, if the Commission finds probable cause, it will attempt to eliminate the discriminatory practice through conciliation. If conciliation fails, the Commission will issue a formal complaint prosecuted by the Attorney General's office at a formal hearing.

State ex rel. Am. Legion Post 25 v. Ohio Civ. Rights Comm. concerns the first step in this process -- the preliminary investigation. Carol Van Slyke, the charging party, filed a complaint with the OCRC against the American Legion Post 25 claiming that its executive director had sexually harassed her and fired her in retaliation for complaining about it. When contacted by the commission, the Legion explained that it had fired Van Slyke shortly after receiving an anonymous letter that she was a felony offender. During the investigation, the Legion requested, by letter from its attorney, that the OCRC issue a subpoena on its behalf compelling the production of information about her felony conviction. The Commission refused to issue the requested subpoena. The Commission did, however, during the investigatory phase, issue a subpoena on its own behalf for the same information. Because the information became the Commission's work product, the Legion was not permitted to review it. After the Commission issued a probably cause determination, the Legion filed suit to compel the OCRC to issue the requested subpoena.

In ruling that the Legion had a clear right to the issuance of the requested subpoena, the Court relied upon the plain language of R.C. 4112.04(B)(3)(b), which provides:

Upon written application by a respondent, the commission shall issue subpoenas in its name to the same extent and subject to the same limitations as subpoenas issued by the commission.

This decision provides employers with an important weapon in defending against OCRC complaints. Often times, employers are shooting in the dark responding to administrative charges. This case enables employers to defend charges on a much more level playing field by preventing the OCRC from limiting employer's access to factual information by hiding behind its curtain of agency work product. This tool is important for two reasons. First, and more obviously, it will enable employers to more efficiently gather key information at an earlier stage in the process to help get more charges dismissed as early as possible. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, better access to information will limit unintentional misstatements by employers that a plaintiff could use against them in subsequent litigation.

No company wants to defend an OCRC charge. State ex rel. Am. Legion Post 25 v. Ohio Civ. Rights Comm., however, makes the process a little more palatable.