Discrimination In The Workplace: Jumping Through the EEOC Hoop

When an employee believes an employer has discriminated against him or her, the worker often can't just file a lawsuit in court to seek damages or reinstatement for discrimination.

In many cases, where discrimination on the job has occurred, the worker is required to file a formal written complaint, called a charge, with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) before filing a lawsuit in court about the discrimination.

The EEOC Charges and Investigations

The EEOC charge of discrimination is a required step under several laws which protect workers from unlawful discrimination in the workplace. For example, if an employee believes he or she was discriminated against because of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin, which fall under the federal anti-discrimination law called "Title VII," usually that employee must go through the EEOC process.

An EEOC charge also is required if a worker believes she was discriminated against due to age or disability. Though a person can sometimes avoid filing with the EEOC, by filing suit under other laws, a charge with the EEOC is generally required if such discrimination on one or more of these grounds is claimed. The EEOC is a U.S. governmental agency which has the responsibility to receive these charges of discrimination and enforce the laws against discrimination.

The EEOC must investigate charges of discrimination, and if the facts found in the investigation confirm the charges made, the EEOC may try to resolve the complaint through the process of mediation or settlement. If the EEOC thinks a case is good enough, the agency can file a lawsuit itself. This occasionally happens if there are many workers who are affected by unlawful actions on the part of an employer. For example, if workers of a certain nationality are treated differently from other workers, the EEOC might itself prosecute a lawsuit on behalf of these workers. In this case, the workers also are allowed to have their own private lawyer to represent them.

Once the EEOC charge is filed, it is assigned to an investigator if it appears that unlawful discrimination occurred. The employer is also notified, and is given the opportunity to respond to the charges and explain the actions it took. If the evidence presented in the EEOC charge is not considered "strong," the charge may be administratively "held" until an investigator becomes available. This can sometimes take months to years. The EEOC claims that the "average time for resolving a case" is about one year; however, the time can be much longer. One problem with the length of time it takes for an EEOC investigation is that when the employee has potential claims under laws where an EEOC charge is not required, the employee may lose rights under such other laws by waiting for the EEOC charge to be resolved. In other words, if the "statute of limitations" elapses under other laws prohibiting discrimination or setting fair labor standards, and the EEOC has not issued a notice of right to sue, the employee will lose the rights under such other laws.

EEOC Dismissal and Other Outcomes

If the EEOC case investigation finds the charge of discrimination is not supported by facts and evidence, the EEOC dismisses the charge. If this happens, the agency is required to issue to the complaining party a "right to sue" letter. When the complaining party receives a "right to sue" letter, he or she has only 90 days from receipt of the letter to file a lawsuit. If a complaining employee does not cooperate with the EEOC in its investigation, the EEOC can dismiss the charge.

Workers are allowed to "opt out" of the EEOC system and go to court if their complaint is under Title VII or the Americans with Disabilities Act. After 180 days, the employee can simply ask the EEOC in writing to issue the "right to sue" letter. If the complaint is of age discrimination, the same applies after a 60 day processing period. In either event, the 90 day deadline to file a lawsuit still applies.

Employees who complain under other laws, such as the Equal Pay Act, are not required to obtain a right to sue letter from the EEOC before going to court. However, any worker who believes his or her rights have been violated can file a charge with the EEOC.

Sometimes, a worker files a charge with the EEOC while still employed by the employer that is the object of the charge. It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against any person because of a complaint to the EEOC. If the employer discriminates against a complaining worker in this situation, it is called "retaliation" and is itself unlawful.

If retaliation occurs, the EEOC should be notified right away; if retaliation is proven, additional damages may be available to the worker.The EEOC has offices throughout the country, in most major cities. You can contact the EEOC and request a form to file a charge of discrimination. As with any important right, however, if often is good to contact a knowledgeable attorney for assistance. If you have an attorney already, you should let the EEOC know that an attorney represents you.This area of the law is complex. An attorney who is experienced in employment law should be able to answer questions about the issues surrounding EEOC requirements.

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