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Supreme Court to hear key age-discrimination case next term

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

The ink on the U.S. Supreme Court’s latest employment-law decision (see “Big ruling: Supreme Court limits scope of pay-discrimination lawsuits”)  was barely dry before the court voted to hear yet another important employment-discrimination case.

Late yesterday, the justices announced they wanted to hear more about an age discrimination case that may mean fewer employment discrimination lawsuits for employers—if the court overturns a 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals decision that greatly expanded employees’ ability to sue their employers.

The case began when Patricia Kennedy, a courier for FedEx, complained to the EEOC that her employer used performance goals as an excuse to fire older couriers or push them into quitting. The problem with her case was that she never filed an official EEOC complaint. Instead, she filled out a questionnaire outlining her grievance with FedEx.

What happened next was—nothing. The EEOC didn’t treat the completed questionnaire as a complaint, and consequently never let FedEx know about Kennedy’s claims. From a practical standpoint, that meant the company never had a chance to resolve the matter informally with the agency or even gather the information it would later need in preparation for a lawsuit.

FedEx claims it was seriously handicapped and surprised when Kennedy then filed a federal age discrimination lawsuit. Things got even stickier when the court allowed 11 other couriers to piggy-back on Kennedy’s lawsuit, none of whom had filed their own EEOC complaints either.

The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that by filling out the questionnaire, Kennedy did what the law required her to do—file her administrative complaint within 300 days of the alleged discriminatory act—and that the agency’s inaction didn’t bar her lawsuit.

(You may recall that just last week, the Supreme Court ruled in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Inc.,   that employees must file wage discrimination charges with the EEOC promptly—either within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory action in those states that don’t have their own employment discrimination laws and a state or local agency to handle such complaints, or within 300 days in states with such laws and agencies.)

FedEx appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has now agreed to answer the following question: Does an employee alleging a violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) satisfy the requirement to file an EEOC charge by filing out the agency’s intake questionnaire?

The case will be argued and decided sometime in the 2007-08 term, which begins in October 2007.

The case is Federal Express Corp. v. Paul Holowecki, et al., No. 06-1322.

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