Employees must file an EEOC complaint before suing their employer over most forms of federally prohibited discrimination. Generally, any claims not included in the complaint don’t count, because an EEOC complaint is supposed to put the employer on notice about everything the case involves.
However, don’t assume that the only parts of the complaint form that matter are the checkmark boxes listing various forms of discrimination. Even if the employee misses a box, she can make a claim if she includes the allegation in her written narrative.
Recent case: Lucky filed an EEOC complaint after she lost her job. She was 57 years old and had various medical problems. A younger man replaced her. Her complaint checked off boxes for sex, age and disability discrimination. The narrative part mentioned that she had been discharged for falsifying a document.
When she filed her subsequent lawsuit, she included charges that she had been fired in retaliation for asking for accommodations and complaining about discrimination. Her former employer argued that she hadn’t checked the retaliation box and therefore couldn’t sue for that.
The court took a careful look at the boxes Lucky had checked and the narrative portion. By then it was clear that she was alleging that the employer had drummed up false charges as retaliation, but that didn’t fly. She never mentioned her prior complaints in the narrative either. That claim was dismissed. (Bruton v. Firsthealth of the Carolinas, No. 1:12-CV-253, MD NC, 2012)
- Prepare to show you were fair if disabled workers take a hit during RIF
- Make sure your policy is understood before rejecting applicants because of bankruptcy
- Check workers' EEOC, PHRC claims for errors
- When employees are bilingual, it's OK to require use of English in the workplace
- Insist on thorough documentation of background check results