Don’t DIY at EEOC.
Baiden-Adams v. Forsythe Transportation, Inc., Case 1:13-cv-272 (E.D.Va. Sept. 4, 2013). In this case, the plaintiff had prepared and filed her own Charge of Discrimination form with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission without the assistance of a lawyer. In theory, the EEOC process is supposed to be user-friendly. In practice, however, there are many traps for the unwary employee who fails to fill out the charge form in just the right way. In Ms. Baiden-Adams’s case, the federal district court in Alexandria dismissed her sexual harassment lawsuit because her EEOC charge did not contain sufficient information to put her employer on notice of her claims.
Ms. Baiden-Adams worked for Forsythe Transportation, Inc. as a training supervisor in Arlington, Virginia. She complained in her lawsuit that, beginning in 2010, two managers – both her direct supervisors – engaged in harassing behavior towards her and other women at work. The alleged harassment consisted of regular, at times daily, inappropriate sexual comments. In addition, one manager routinely pinched and caressed Ms. Baiden-Adams on her arms and rubbed her shoulders in an unwanted manner. She complained to her union shop stewards, to no avail. She also began to warn and counsel new female employees to avoid the two harassing managers because of their behavior.
Ms. Baiden-Adams was terminated on September 17, 2010. She alleged that her termination was in retaliation for her efforts to protect female drivers from this sexual harassment.
Ms. Baiden-Adams’ complaint contained three claims: the first two, alleging a sexually hostile work environment and retaliation, were based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the third claim alleged wrongful termination in violation of Virginia public policy. (The court dismissed this state claim – sometimes referred to as a Bowman claim – because the plaintiff was unable to list a Virginia policy that was implicated – the federal policy she named, Title VII, was not a proper basis. This part of the court’s holding is beyond the scope of this blog entry but we have discussed Bowman claims here, here, and here.)
As we mentioned above, the court dismissed the lawsuit in its entirety. It came to this result after comparing the allegations made in her lawsuit to the allegations the plaintiff had made earlier with the EEOC. When she filed the EEOC charge, Ms. Baiden-Adams did not yet have an attorney.
Ms. Baiden-Adams correctly identified her employer, Forsythe Transportation, on the charge. She then checked three boxes alleging discrimination based on “race,” “sex” and “retaliation.” She listed April 1, 2010 to October 9, 2010 as the time period during which the discrimination took place. In her description of particulars, the charge stated,
In early September 2010, I sent an email to Tom Greufe (Regional Manager) about my pay raise. On September 17, 2010, I was suspended and replaced by a male. On October 1, 2010, my supervisor Mark Ostertag discharged me.
The court noted that the two supervisors mentioned in the charge were different from the two supervisors named in the Complaint. The court also noted that the charge did not mention any sexual comments or touching, or anything else about a sexually hostile environment. Finally, the court noted that the retaliation alleged in the EEOC charge dealt with an email she had sent to a supervisor about her pay raise, but that she was now alleging retaliation based on her efforts to protect other women from sexual harassment.
The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that her check mark of the box alleging discrimination based on “sex” was sufficient. Finding that the allegations made in the charge were unrelated to the allegations made in the lawsuit and that the allegations in the Complaint therefore exceeded the scope of the EEOC charge, the court held that the plaintiff had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies. Since such exhaustion is prerequisite for a suit under Title VII, the court did not have jurisdiction over Ms. Baiden-Adams claims. The plaintiff argued that she had filed her EEOC charge on her own, that she was not a trained lawyer, and that she therefore did not know precisely what allegations to include in her charge. Unpersuaded, the court held that it was not at liberty to read into administrative charges allegations they do not contain.
The poorly drafted EEOC charge caused Ms. Baiden-Adams to lose what may have otherwise been successful claims. The lesson to be learned from this is that, when it comes to filing a charge with the EEOC, it is best to seek legal advice early. Your employer’s lawyer will find ways to exploit your missteps. Do not try to do this on your own.