Responding to EEOC and State Agency Discrimination Charges: Five Things Every HR Generalist should know.*
The EEOC receives over 75,000 discrimination charges annually each of which requires a response by an employer. How companies respond to charges varies greatly. In the legal community there are two schools of thought on the scope of EEOC responses. The first approach follows a minimalist path under the rationale that anything sent to the EEOC is “free discovery” or commits to a defense before all the facts are fully developed. The second approach provides a more detailed response with the goal of getting rid of the claim more quickly. The approach chosen will depend on an evaluation of the claim and the employer’s defenses. The following should be assessed in determining how your company will respond to an EEOC charge or state commission claim:
1. Time Limitations for Charges and Lawsuits: It can take years for a charge to turn into a lawsuit. During this time, potential back pay is mounting, witnesses are disappearing, and memories are fading. EEOC discrimination charges must be filed within 300 days of the discriminatory action (or 180 days in states do not have discrimination statutes and investigatory agencies). Lawsuits must be filed by the employee within 90 days after the EEOC issues a right to sue letter. It is impossible for me to interpret the EEOC’s data on charge resolutions, but my experience is that the EEOC does not decide many cases and charges remain dormant for long periods of time when the parties don’t move them forward. The delay can work to the advantage of an employer if the employee (or his or her attorney) loses interest in the charge. When the EEOC ultimately closes the case and issues a right to sue letter, the employee may never act on it by filing a lawsuit. In Pennsylvania, the PHRC has a similar track record. Likewise, an employee must file a lawsuit within 2 years of the PHRC’s closing of the complaint.
2. Shaping the Defense: An investigation of the charge should lead to formulation of a strategy for responding to the EEOC. At that point your defense is limited by your prior response. Inadequately investigated charges and poorly written position letters can severely hamper an employer’s defense. I have seen situations in which “home made” responses gave away or limited important legal defenses.
Information sent to the EEOC may be disclosed to the employee in the course of the investigation and the entire file may be subpoenaed once a lawsuit is filed. The minimalist approach might be appropriate if the facts are bad and you are looking for a quick settlement. A detailed response may be right if you want to convince the EEOC or the employee’s attorney that the case has no merit. I personally don’t like to “lie in the weeds” and hope the employee will go away.
3. Using Affidavits to Preserve Evidence: Creating an institutional memory of the facts underlying your defense to an EEOC charge is worth considering. People come and go with amazing frequency. So, tracking them down (years later) and hoping they will remember the events with great detail is a risk. If a witness’s recollection is important to your defense, have them sign an affidavit. Affidavits also keep witnesses from changing their stories as their allegiances change.
4. Record Retention: Once a charge is filed, a company has an obligation to preserve tangible and electronic records that relate to the employee’s claims. The scope of records may include e-mails, personnel file and other records for the employee and comparable employees. Inadvertent destruction of records even pursuant to a policy can have grave consequences to an employer’s defense including court sanctions, prohibitions on presenting a defense, and jury instruction allowing an adverse inference to be drawn from the absence of the record. The jury may be allowed to presume that a missing or destroyed record would have favored the employee.
5. Trial Use of EEOC Determinations: Many employers are surprised to learn that an EEOC’s finding of probable cause may be admitted as evidence in a discrimination trial and considered by a jury. As noted by Michael Fox at Jottings by an Employer’s Lawyer, some courts recognize the imperfection of allowing jury consideration of EEOC determinations. Nonetheless, it is powerful evidence when a government agency believes that an employer engaged in discrimination, making it all the more important to carefully tailor your response.
* Not meant to be exhaustive.