Thursday, February 28, 2008

Charge It!

That's what the U.S. Supreme Court told the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in an opinion handed down yesterday, Federal Express Corp. v. Holowecki, et al.

The case addressed 2 questions: (1) What is a charge under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)? (2) Did the former employee file documents with the EEOC sufficient to form a charge of discrimination under the ADEA?

Some brief background: The underlying suit was brought by 14 former employees who worked for FedEx as couriers. They claimed that new policies implemented by FedEx which addressed compensation and performance of couriers were discriminatory against older employees. One employee, Patricia Kennedy, filed an intake questionnaire with the EEOC along with a 6-page affidavit detailing what she alleged were the discriminatory practices. The intake questionnaire was never processed, and FedEx was never told that any type of complaint had been lodged against it.

The ADEA requires an aggrieved employee wait 60 days after filing a charge with the EEOC before filing suit in federal court. (This differs from Title VII, which requires the aggrieved employee to receive a "right to sue" letter from the EEOC before filing a lawsuit.) Kennedy filed her Intake Questionnaire on December 3, 2001 and then filed an EEOC charge form on May 30, 2002. In the interim, though, she joined in a suit filed by other aggrieved employees on April 30, 2002.

The trial court dismissed Kennedy's suit, stating she had not waited 60 days from the filing of her charge before filing suit. The district court did not treat the 12/3/01 Intake Questionnaire as a charge, but instead looked at the 5/30/02 EEOC charge form as the charge.

The appellate court reversed, stating that the 12/3/01 Intake Questionnaire could have been deemed a charge and, therefore, more than 60 days had elapsed between the filing of that and the 4/30/02 lawsuit.

FedEx asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the dispute, claiming, among other arguments, that it never had an opportunity to address the claims made in the Intake Questionnaire and that the EEOC's failure to property administer the Intake Questionnaire should not act as a penalty against FedEx.

The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the Intake Questionnaire and accompanying affidavit were sufficient to meet the EEOC's working definition of "charge" under the ADEA. It should be noted that the word "charge" is not defined in either the ADEA or the implementing regulations. The regulations do shed some light on the contents of a charge but fall short of giving a comprehensive definition.

At first glance, this decision may appear to be a huge boost for employees. In practice, though, the decision might not be worthy of the initial groan it has created among employment law defense counsel. First, remember that this case applies only to the ADEA setting, not to Title VII. Most ADEA charges are handled in the normal way--the employee/former employee files a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC; the EEOC notifies the employer of the charge, the investigation ensues, and eventually a notice of right to sue letter is issued. Although ADEA plaintiffs can file suit after only 60 days has passed from the filing of the charge, most of them wait until the entire EEOC process plays out before turning to the court system.

We will watch what trends develop, if any, from this case and keep you apprised of those.

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