Federal Express Corp. v. Holowecki
In a 7-2 decision on February 27, 2008, in the case Federal Express Corp. v. Holowecki, the Supreme Court determined that an intake questionnaire submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) along with an affidavit requesting assistance constituted a "charge" as that term is defined by the EEOC under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). Although the employer was unaware of the existence of the "charge" until after the age discrimination lawsuit was filed, the Court was unwilling to punish the claimant due to the inaction of the EEOC.
Under the ADEA, no individual may file a civil action "until 60 days after a charge alleging unlawful discrimination has been filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. . . ." 29 U.S.C. §626(d). The statute requires the EEOC, upon receiving such a charge, to "promptly notify all persons named in such charge as prospective defendants in the action and shall promptly seek to eliminate any alleged unlawful practice by informal methods of conciliation, conference, and persuasion." 29 U.S.C. §626(d).
In this case, an employee over the age of forty completed an "Intake Questionnaire" with the EEOC in December 2001, alleging age discrimination, and she attached a signed six-page affidavit describing the purported unlawful practices in more detail. She and thirteen other current or former employees filed an ADEA lawsuit against the employer in April 2002. Prior to the lawsuit, the EEOC did not assign a charge number, did not notify the employer about the Questionnaire or affidavit, and did not commence enforcement or conciliation proceedings. Finding that no charge had been filed, the trial court dismissed the lawsuit, but the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. The Supreme Court subsequently agreed with the Second Circuit.
The ADEA does not define the word "charge." The EEOC, therefore, is tasked with developing a reasonable interpretation of "charge," and the Supreme Court determined that the EEOC's definition, although not the model of clarity, was reasonable. According to the Supreme Court, simply completing an intake questionnaire likely is not enough, but when combined with an affidavit or statement that requests the EEOC's assistance in resolving alleged violations of the ADEA, a charge has been filed.
The employer argued that the purpose of filing a charge was not met because it received no notice of the charge until after the lawsuit was filed. Otherwise, why would the ADEA require the EEOC to promptly notify prospective defendants and to seek to conciliate or confer with the employer about the alleged unlawful practice? The Supreme Court acknowledged that the employer's interests were "given short shrift," but the EEOC's failure to communicate did not change the fact that a "charge" was filed in the first place.
Although the Supreme Court has made it easier for an age discrimination plaintiff to file suit under the ADEA in a situation where a formal charge has not been filed, note that this decision will probably not impact cases under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Americans with Disabilities Act because the ADEA's pre-suit requirements are different. Unlike under Title VII or the ADA, an ADEA plaintiff does not have to wait to file a lawsuit until a "right to sue letter" is issued by the EEOC.