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Worker is her own lawyer? Take suit seriously

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Firing,Human Resources

When employees can’t find an attorney to handle their em­­ployment discrimination claims, they sometimes go it alone, filing their own EEOC complaints and then moving on to federal court.

Of course, they’re at some disadvantage because they’re neither attorneys nor particularly well-versed in employment law. That’s why judges often bend over backward to help them get their day in court.

Even if so-called pro se litigants pre­sent confusing and seemingly contradictory cases, chances are a federal judge will expect the em­­ployer to respond.

Recent case: Rayne Omar-Taylor claimed she was fired from her job and escorted off the premises after she asked about a reasonable accommodation. She filed her own EEOC complaint, checking the boxes for disability discrimination and retaliation. When the EEOC sent her a right-to-sue letter, she barely met the 90-day deadline for filing her federal lawsuit.

Her former employer challenged her suit, pointing out that this time she had not checked the retaliation box. Meanwhile, she found an attorney, who refiled the complaint with the proper box checked, plus more factual information.

The employer argued it was now more than 90 days since she received the right-to-sue letter, and therefore she missed a crucial deadline.

The court disagreed. The judge said that the few facts Omar-Taylor had provided implied retaliation and that the employer was al­­ready on notice (via the EEOC complaint) that she was alleging re­­taliation. Her case will proceed. (Omar-Taylor v. Hennepin County, No. 11-899, DC MN, 2011)

Final note: The worst thing you can do is ignore a pro se complaint. If you don’t respond, the court just may conclude you defaulted. Then the facts the employee alleged are deemed true; all that remains is calculating the damages.

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