It is no secret that the EEOC is asserting aggressive positions in several arenas, but a recent case reflects that it must continue to follow Title VII’s basic requirements despite its new enforcement prerogatives.
In terms of procedural issues, the EEOC has targeted systemic discrimination issues for class or pattern or practice litigation. From a substantive standpoint, it has pushed extended leaves as “reasonable accommodations” under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In EEOC v. Princeton Healthcare System, Case No. 10-4126 (PGS) (D.N.J. Oct. 18, 2012), the EEOC combined both goals in what purported to be a pattern or practice claim against a New Jersey Hospital for failing to grant, in its view, enough additional leave for disabled employees.
The Princeton Healthcare case began with a charge from an employee in 2007, who complained that she should have been granted leave under the ADA even though she did not qualify for leave under the FMLA. The EEOC initially entered a no probable cause finding, but also advised the employer that that it would expand its investigation. In 2008, a second employee filed a charge similar to the first. The EEOC found probable cause on that charge and then filed an action on behalf of a putative class of affected employees. It later amended its complaint to assert pattern or practice claims purportedly under sections 706 and 707 of Title VII.
As an aside, the EEOC’s ability to pursue pattern or practice claims under section 706 is, to put it mildly, debatable, but the court’s opinion does not touch upon that issue. The EEOC has pushed this position in several cases to enable it to make “heads I win, tails you lose” arguments on a range of issues including damages and procedural prerequisites, and several courts have rejected the ability of the Commission to do so.
The court did, however, touch upon the statute of limitations, as the employer moved for summary judgment as to claims prior to the first charge on the grounds that they were untimely. The EEOC argued, in essence, that it was not bound by the timely charge requirement because it asserted claims under both sections 706 and 707. The court found, however, that Title VII unambiguously required a timely charge of discrimination. The court also found that because each employment termination was a separate, discrete act, the EEOC could not rely upon a continuing violation theory to extend the limitations period. Accordingly, the court held that the EEOC could not pursue claims prior to the first-filed charge of discrimination.
The Princeton Healthcare case was designated not for publication, but it reflects another court recognizing limits on the EEOC’s efforts to expand its enforcement powers beyond those provided to it by Congress.
The Bottom Line: Another court has recognized that the EEOC, despite its enforcement targets, must still comply with Title VII’s procedural requirements.