EEOC Questionnaire Reignites Firefighter’s Title VII Claims

After a heated hearing, a federal district court in Utah has ruled that a firefighter can proceed with her Title VII claims, despite failing to describe her allegations in a formal EEOC charge.  Denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss, the court held that the documents the firefighter submitted, an EEOC intake questionnaire and its addendum, were sufficient to constitute a “charge.”  Drescher v. Clinton City, 2015 BL 360177, D. Utah, No. 1:15-cv-00032 (Nov. 2, 2015).

Shelley Drescher worked as a firefighter for the Clinton City Fire Department from 2008 until she was terminated in 2013.  Drescher states in her complaint that during her employment, male co-workers made crude jokes, walked around naked, discussed sexual fantasies, and used the women’s bathroom.  Drescher alleges that the deputy chief told firemen that such conduct was “okay” so long as they were not caught doing it.  Drescher claims that she was denied several promotions in retaliation for complaining.

On the EEOC charge Drescher filed, she wrote only that she had been discriminated against based on sex.  She did not mention sexual harassment or retaliation.  She did, though, submit an intake questionnaire and attach a 6-page addendum describing the sexual harassment and retaliation incidents she experienced.

The defendants, City of Clinton and the Clinton Fire Department, moved to dismiss Drescher’s sexual harassment and retaliation claims, arguing that she had failed to exhaust the administrative process because she did not describe these claims in her EEOC charge.  The court noted that a charge stating the grounds for the claim is a prerequisite to filing suit.  It rejected, however, that the claims had to be stated formally.  The court relied on Federal Express Corp. v. Holowecki, 552 U.S. 389 (2008), where the U.S. Supreme Court loosened the requirements of an EEOC charge.

Under Holowecki, any document may constitute a charge if: (1) it includes the minimal information required by EEOC regulations, and (2) can be “reasonably construed as a request for the agency to take remedial action to protect the employee’s rights.”  Id. at 400.  Under this standard, Drescher’s questionnaire and addendum, taken together, contained all the information required to constitute a “charge” for Drescher’s sexual harassment and retaliation claims.  The court based its holding largely on the second prong in Holowecki – that Drescher’s intent was to request that the EEOC help protect her rights.

While courts should not disregard serious claims due to a formality, the broad standard in Holowecki may hinder the ability of employers to investigate and redress issues immediately after receiving notice of an EEOC charge.  When given details of a charge, an employer can resolve claims and ultimately extinguish the need to go to court.

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