It’s easy to underestimate the importance of responding to a charge of discrimination filed with an administrative agency like the EEOC. After all, the EEOC doesn’t have the authority to award damages or assess fines against employers. To get any money from the employer, the employee or former employee will have to file a lawsuit, and the employer can just defend the lawsuit when and if it comes. Right? It’s true that the EEOC doesn’t have the authority to award damages or assess fines. But the employer’s response to an EEOC charge is the foundation for the later defense of the lawsuit. What is said, or not said, in response to a charge filed with the EEOC can have a significant impact on the outcome of a lawsuit. A recent decision from the Court of Appeals re-emphasizes this point.
In Jones v. National American University, 8th Cir., No. 09-3007, 6/23/10, the court affirmed a jury verdict in favor of an employee’s age discrimination claim. In that case, the reasons the employer gave for the employee’s termination in response to the EEOC charge were different from the reasons proffered by the employer at trial. The Court held that the different reasons given by the employer at different times was evidence that the employer’s reasons were a mere pretext for age discrimination.
Although this principle does not represent a sea change in the law, it comes on the heels of the EEOC’s announcement that it is hiring more investigators and intends to be more aggressive than it has been in the past 10 years. According to Jacqueline Berrien, the EEOC chair, the EEOC has been bolstered by substantial budget increases in fiscal years 2009 and 2010, and is hiring additional staff, including frontline investigators and lawyers.
In this environment, when employers are more likely to encounter aggressive enforcement from administrative agencies, it is vital to remember the importance of responding appropriately to administrative charges of discrimination as the foundation for the employer’s defense to discrimination claims.