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Fourth Circuit Limits Scope of EEOC Charge

Under Title VII, an employee suing for discrimination or retaliation must first file an administrative charge of discrimination with the EEOC or a state or local fair employment practices agency.  The purpose of this requirement is to ensure that the employer is put on notice of the allegations, and that the administrative agency is given a chance to investigate, before an employee pursues the case in court.  Because of this requirement, one issue that sometimes arises in Title VII lawsuits is: what happens when the plaintiff raises allegations that were not raised in the charge of discrimination?

In Balas v. Huntington Ingalls Indus., Inc., No. 12-1201 (March 15, 2013), the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit answered this question by dismissing allegations that were not raised in the EEOC charge, even though they were included in the employee’s EEOC intake questionnaire and a letter the employee had sent to the agency.  The Court held that an employer cannot be expected to be on notice of allegations it was never made aware of, regardless of whether the employee had told the EEOC about the allegations.

In Balas, the plaintiff claimed she has experienced a sexually hostile work environment, including explicit picture and posters and unwanted touching.  She complained to her employer about the conduct, but was nevertheless terminated in February 2010, ostensibly for falsifying time records.

Following her termination, Balas filed an EEOC charge.  In her intake questionnaire and a letter to the EEOC, Balas raised the sexually hostile work environment, as well as her failure to be promoted.  However, in the actual charge itself, Balas did not raise the promotion claims, and she identified the date of her termination as the “earliest” date of discrimination.  Because the promotion and hostile work environment claims were not raised in the charge, the District Court dismissed those allegations, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal.  As stated by the Court:

” While we recognize that EEOC charges often are not completed by lawyers and as such must be construed with utmost liberality… we are not at liberty to read into administrative charges allegations they do not contain. Instead, persons alleging discrimination have a different form of recourse if they determine that their initial charge does not read as they intended: they may …file an amended charge with the EEOC. “

The Balas decision serves as an important reminder for practitioners:  when a Title VII plaintiff files suit, carefully compare the allegations in the charge to those raised in the lawsuit.  And if you find that some allegations did not appear in the charge, move to have them dismissed!

 

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