Why it matters

The lack of detail found in a plaintiff’s charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission did not require dismissal of the subsequent lawsuit for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit determined in a sexual harassment suit. Seeking to sue Needham Trucking LLC and a company shareholder, Bryan Jones filled out an intake questionnaire with the EEOC. In response to multiple questions asking for detailed explanations, Jones wrote “[s]ee attached.” The EEOC never received the attachment and did not tell Jones it was missing, but prepared a charge form and issued a right-to-sue letter on his behalf. Jones then filed a Title VII suit. Needham moved to dismiss for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, arguing that the facts alleged in the charge were insufficient to put it on notice of the claims made in the complaint. A district court granted the motion, but the Tenth Circuit reversed. Although Jones’ complaint was “undoubtedly” more detailed than his charge form, the form only needs to “describe generally” the alleged discrimination, the panel held.

Detailed discussion

Bryan Jones worked as a mechanic for Needham Trucking for approximately six months in 2014. He claimed that he was fired because he would not have sex with Julie Needham, his direct supervisor and a shareholder of the business. Jones completed an intake questionnaire with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, checking the boxes for “Sex” and “Retaliation” as the reasons for his claims of employment discrimination, additionally writing out “sex har[as]sment."

He also identified another mechanic as a comparator, who Jones alleged was treated better because the other mechanic had sex with Needham, and listed two other witnesses. In response to questions contained on the EEOC questionnaire seeking more detailed explanations, Jones wrote “[s]ee attached.” The reference was to a six-paragraph statement that concluded with the statement, “I was terminated because I refused to agree to Ms. Needham’s sexual advances and I rejected all such efforts by her.”

The attachment never made it to the EEOC, and the agency did not alert Jones to the fact that it was missing. Regardless, the EEOC prepared a charge form on behalf of Jones and issued him a right-to-sue letter. Jones then filed a complaint in Oklahoma federal court containing various state law claims, as well as a claim of sexual harassment in violation of Title VII, stating that the alleged harassment took the form of both hostile work environment discrimination and quid pro quo discrimination.

In their motion to dismiss, the defendants argued that Jones had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies with his insufficient intake form. The district court granted the companies’ motion, and the plaintiff appealed.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed. Although Title VII requires that a plaintiff must first exhaust administrative remedies by filing a sufficient charge of discrimination with the EEOC, Congress did not provide much guidance on how to satisfy this requirement, the court noted.

“Aside from requiring that a charge be in writing and made under oath, Congress provided scant detail on what the charge should look like and instead gave the EEOC the responsibility of fleshing out those requirements,” the court explained. The agency has established a system where individuals submit information, typically in the form of an intake questionnaire, and then the EEOC renders assistance in filing the charge, which should contain a “clear and concise statement of the facts, including pertinent dates, constituting the alleged unlawful employment practices.”

The point of this process is to give notice of the alleged violation to the charged party and give the EEOC an opportunity to conciliate the claim. “Given these goals, the charge document must contain the general facts concerning the discriminatory actions later alleged in the legal claim,” the panel said.

The key question: Were the facts alleged in Jones’ charge form sufficiently related to the claim made in the complaint such that those facts would prompt a company investigation of the claim? The defendants answered the court’s question in the negative, arguing that the charge form was insufficient to put it on notice as to whether Jones was alleging quid pro quo or hostile work environment sexual harassment.

The panel rejected this “complete bifurcation” between the two forms of sexual harassment, as the U.S. Supreme Court has cautioned they are not wholly distinct claims but simply “shorthand descriptors to delineate different ways in which sexual harassment can occur.”

Both factual scenarios lead to the same place, the court stated: “[S]exual harassment that violates Title VII’s proscription against sex discrimination in the workplace.” Despite differences in the elements needed to prove the specific sexual harassment claim, the two descriptors are not so unrelated that the facts could not overlap or that an investigation of facts from one allegation could not also fall within the scope of an investigation of the other, the court said.

With this understanding of the alleged conduct at issue, the Tenth Circuit answered its own question in the affirmative.

“A charge need only ‘describe generally’ the alleged discrimination, in order to ‘give notice of an alleged violation to the charged party,’” the panel wrote. “Mr. Jones’s form has the boxes checked for his allegations of sex-based discrimination and retaliation, and it recounts that he was ‘subjected to sexual remarks,’ that ‘Julie Needham terminated [his] employment,’ and that no reason was given for his termination. We think this was sufficient to alert Needham to the sexual harassment allegations and to trigger an investigation that would look into what the sexual remarks were, why Mr. Jones was fired, and whether the two events were connected.”

Although “the complaint Mr. Jones filed was more detailed than his charge form, this is to be expected given that a complaint must meet [Federal Rule of Civil Procedure] Rule 8 pleading standards and contain sufficient facts to render it plausible,” the court added.

To read the decision in Jones v. Needham, click here.