Employers commonly receive Charges of Discrimination from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging failure to reasonably accommodate a disability, that fail to identify the actual accommodation allegedly requested. Last month, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina) refused to dismiss an ADA lawsuit that contained an alleged accommodation request that was not contained in her EEOC Charge.
In Sydnor v. Fairfax County, the plaintiff was a nurse who had foot surgery. She filed an ADA Charge alleging that the county health department terminated her in violation of the ADA because it did not agree to her request for accommodation. In her EEOC Charge questionnaire, the plaintiff identified light duty work as the requested accommodation. However, her lawsuit alleged that she had requested the ability to work from a wheelchair.
The county sought dismissal of the claim, alleging that the plaintiff had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies under the ADA by not including the wheelchair request in her EEOC Charge. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, reversing the lower court dismissal. The Fourth Circuit noted that in some cases, discrimination lawsuits can be dismissed because the claims in the suit do not match those in the underlying EEOC Charge. For example, a lawsuit alleging sex discrimination cannot be maintained if the EEOC Charge only claimed race discrimination.
However, in this case, the court found that the plaintiff's EEOC Charge was sufficient to place the employer on notice of the general nature of her claims. The Charge and suit involved the same supervisors and same claims of failure to accommodate. The accommodations were based on the same medical condition, and the plaintiff noted her use of a wheelchair several times in the EEOC questionnaire.
Federal courts generally will not penalize plaintiffs based on the EEOC's failure to fully document the factual basis for claims of discrimination. As long as the employer is provided general notice of the nature of the plaintiff's claims of discrimination, courts will not hold the subsequent lawsuit to precise conformance with the initial administrative filing.