In recent years, a number of federal courts have been asked to determine what constitutes a legal Charge of Discrimination before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This question is of great importance in cases where the Charging Party waits until near the end of the period of limitations for filing a Charge. Employers often contend that letters to the EEOC, intake questionnaires and the like, do not meet the statutory requirement under Title VII that a sworn Charge be in place by the deadline.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted a loose standard for determining what documents meet this statutory requirement for filing a Charge under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Unlike Title VII, ADEA does not contain the sworn Charge requirement, and the law does not contain much guidance for determining when an actual Charge has been filed. In Federal Express Corp. v. Holowecki, the plaintiff completed an EEOC intake questionnaire and filed an affidavit complaining about FedEx’s compensation system. FedEx moved to dismiss the suit, claiming that the plaintiff never filed an actual Charge under ADEA. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals held for the plaintiff, and FedEx appealed to the Supreme Court.
In a 7-2 decision, the Court affirmed rejection of FedEx’s motion to dismiss. It held that unlike Title VII, ADEA does not require filing of a sworn Charge of Discrimination. The Court deferred to EEOC regulations that consider a Charge to be information filed with the agency that can reasonably be construed as a request for the EEOC to take remedial action. The Supreme Court took a practical view of the difficulties the EEOC has processing over 175,000 claims per year, and refused to penalize the plaintiff because of procedural problems within the agency.
The Court stayed the lawsuit to provide the parties the opportunity to mediate the claim, because the EEOC failed to provide such opportunity. This decision is consistent with other recent Court opinions that provide a liberal interpretation of what is considered a Charge. While employers should always contest the timeliness of an EEOC filing where appropriate, such effort is unlikely to succeed if the employee provided the agency with the facts and circumstances prior to the end of the limitations period.