There is a common misconception amongst employers that an employee must bring an EEOC charge in order for the EEOC to file a discrimination lawsuit on an employee’s behalf. This is not the case. In fact, the EEOC has the right to bring a lawsuit on behalf of an employee based on either the charge itself or facts that “arise out of the investigation” of a charge.
The law regarding the EEOC’s authority to bring a discrimination lawsuit is explained easily in the following hypothetical situation. An employee files a discrimination charge with the EEOC alleging that her manager has sexually harassed her and created a hostile work environment. During the course of its investigation into the charge, the EEOC discovers that the manager has in fact sexually harassed a number of women in the workplace. The EEOC can file a discrimination lawsuit on behalf of the woman who filed the charge AND on behalf of all the other women who were subject to sexual harassment. Unfortunately, this “hypothetical” situation is all too common.
There is a split in authority amongst the Circuit Courts as to how broad the EEOC’s authority is in this regard, i.e. what lawsuits can arise out of the EEOC’s investigation. Some Circuit Courts have held that the lawsuit must be related to the charge in that the lawsuit must be for the same kind of discrimination as alleged in the charge. In other words, the EEOC cannot bring an age discrimination claim on behalf of an employee if the evidence to support the age discrimination claim arose during an investigation into a sexual harassment charge. Still other Circuits allow the EEOC to bring a discrimination lawsuit so long as the claims arise from an EEOC investigation of any charge even if it goes beyond the scope of the original EEOC charge.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals takes the latter approach. The EEOC has the authority to bring suit either on the discrimination charged in the report to the EEOC or for discrimination actually found by the EEOC while investigating the original charge. This is true even if the type of discrimination uncovered during the investigation is different than that alleged in the Complaint. Under no circumstances is the EEOC’s authority to bring a lawsuit unchecked, therefore legal counsel can assist an employer in determining whether the EEOC’s claims are improper.