What to do when the EEOC drags its feet — Business Management Daily: Free Reports on Human Resources, Employment Law, Office Management, Office Communication, Office Technology and Small Business Tax Business Management Daily

EEOC investigations usually move fairly quickly, especially if the commission believes a case has little or no merit. But complicated cases—or those the agency wants to use to send a message—may take longer.

Unfortunately for employers, the EEOC can spend as much time on the investigation as it wants without losing the right to sue. That’s because there is technically no statute of limitations on the commission’s actions.

But that doesn’t mean employers are powerless. Fortunately, there is a legal doctrine employers can use when the EEOC waits and waits to initiate litigation, making it difficult or impossible to mount an effective defense.

The doctrine is called “laches” and it applies whenever a defendant is unfairly harmed by long delays. Be prepared to show how damaging and unfair the delay has been.

Recent case: Michael Quintois identifies himself as an American. He had worked as a supervisor for a Walmart distribution center run by Propak Logistics. Quintois complained to management that the company allegedly hired Hispanics only for nonmanagement jobs, something he alleged was discrimination based on national origin.

After he was terminated, he filed an EEOC complaint. That was in 2003. The agency didn’t file its lawsuit until 2008.

The company protested, arguing that the time delay meant it couldn’t defend itself against allegations. For example, the facility had already closed and the employees in charge of hiring and firing had left the company.

The court explained that the EEOC isn’t bound by a statute of limitations, but prejudicial delays are possible grounds for dismissal. The parties will now conduct discovery to see if the agency’s delay was reasonable or that the company was prejudiced by delay. (EEOC v. Propak Logistics, No. 1:098-CV-311, WD NC, 2010)

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