Concerned that the administrative exhaustion requirement for bringing discrimination claims in court “should not become a tripwire for hapless plaintiffs,” the U.S.  Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, has held that an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complainant need not identify the particular accommodation allegedly requested and refused prior to filing suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Sydnor v. Fairfax County, No. 11-1573 (June 19, 2012).

In Syndor, a former employee recounted in her EEOC questionnaire – but not her charge – that she requested “light duty.”  She subsequently claimed in federal court that she had asked for, but been denied, the accommodation of “using a wheelchair.”  The District Court dismissed the ADA claim sua sponte (in response to a motion in limine) on the basis that the former employee failed to exhaust her administrative remedies.  The Fourth Circuit reversed, finding that administrative and judicial claims need only be “reasonably related” and not “precisely the same” to fulfill the exhaustion requirement.  The Fourth Circuit has jurisdiction over Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Background

Carolyn Sydnor worked as a public health nurse for the Fairfax County Health Department (“Fairfax County”).   As a public heath nurse, Sydnor administered vaccinations, collected lab specimens, provided screening and diagnostic tests, and provided certain health information to patients.  Sydnor’s job, at least according to her job description, also required certain physical requirements, such as the ability to walk, stand, bend, and carry young children and light weight items up to 15 pounds.

Sydnor had numerous health problems, including chronic pain and Fibromyalgia.  She had surgery on her left foot and attempted to return to work three months later.  Fairfax County, however, over Sydnor’s objection, instructed Sydnor to take additional leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, on a regular, then intermittent, basis, over the next eight months.  Following exhaustion of her FMLA leave, Fairfax County terminated Sydnor’s employment, claiming she did not have the “capacity to perform the full clinical duties of public health nurse.”

Sydnor filed an administrative charge with the EEOC, alleging that Fairfax County failed to provide her a reasonable accommodation and thereby violated her rights under the ADA.  The charge did not describe the accommodation requested, but Sydnor asserted in her EEOC questionnaire that she had asked “to be in the clinic doing lighter duty work.”  The questionnaire also states that Fairfax County “did not want me around the patients in the clinic because of my wheelchair.”

The EEOC issued Sydnor a right-to-sue letter and Sydnor filed suit claiming she was denied the reasonable accommodation of being allowed to use a wheelchair at work.  Fairfax County moved for summary judgment, but the District Court denied the motion, finding, “[I]t remains in dispute whether Plaintiff could have served as a public health nurse while in a wheelchair.”

Less than two weeks before trial, Fairfax County sought to exclude testimony that Sydnor requested to work in a wheelchair, arguing that the only accommodation identified to the EEOC was “light duty.”  The District Court agreed that Sydnor did not “file her proposed accommodation with the EEOC” and dismissed the case sua sponte on the basis that she did not “exhaust administrative remedies.”

Applicable Law

A plaintiff must exhaust administrative remedies by filing a charge with the EEOC before pursuing a suit in federal court.  Among other things, requiring a party to file a charge with the EEOC “ensures that the employer is put on notice of the alleged violations” and given “a chance to address the alleged discrimination prior to litigation.” Milles v. Dell, Inc., 429 F.3d 480, 491 (4th Cir. 2005).  Recognizing that Congress’ goal of “providing notice and an opportunity for an agency response” would be undermined if a plaintiff could raise claims that do not appear in the charge, the federal appellate court in Sydnor, citing its opinion in Jones v. Calvert Grp., Ltd., 551 F.3d 297, 300 (4th Cir. 2009), reaffirmed that “the scope of the plaintiff’s right to file a federal lawsuit is determinate by the charge’s contents.”  

“Reasonably Related”

The Court observed that EEOC charges are customarily completed by “laypersons.” It explained that to require “untrained parties to provide a detailed essay to the EEOC in order to exhaust their administrative remedies” would not be consistent with the remedial nature of this exhaustion requirement.  Striking a balance between the notice that is provided to employers and the EEOC on one hand and ensuring that “plaintiffs are not tripped up over technicalities“ on the other, the Court held the claims in a judicial complaint need only be “reasonably related” to the charge and can be “expected to follow from a reasonable administrative investigation.” 

What This Means

While the standard applied by the Fourth Circuit does not require “absolute precision,” the “reasonably related” test is not without limits and courts will continue to find non-exhaustion where a charge and subsequent lawsuit deal with “different time frames, actors, and conduct” such that they describe “two different cases.”  Chacko v. Patuxent Inst., 429 F.3d 505, 510 (4th Cir. 2005).

Whether it is sufficient to include the accommodation request in the EEOC questionnaire, but not the charge, is still an open question, as courts remain split on whether the EEOC questionnaire can be considered in determining the scope of the claim.  However, since both parties in Sydnor used and referred to both the questionnaire and the charge, and did not otherwise raise the issue, the Court did not resolve whether the scope of judicial claims should be limited to claims that would reasonably flow only from the specific wording in the charge and not from other documents filed with the EEOC, including the official questionnaire.