Understanding The EEOC Complaint Process

In order to file a lawsuit against an employer for discrimination, in most cases an employee must first file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The complaint, referred to as a "charge of discrimination", is a brief summary of the facts that form the basis for the claim, the types of discrimination alleged and the time frames during which the discrimination occurred.

It is not necessary that the charge form spell out every fact upon which the claims are based, but the charge must usually give notice of each kind of discrimination alleged — for example, whether the employee is claiming sexual harassment alone, or also unequal pay based upon gender. Any lawsuit filed later may be limited to those claims included in the charge form.

Requirements For Filing An EEOC Charge

The purpose of the requirement to file an EEOC charge is to give the EEOC a chance to investigate, and if possible resolve, claims of discrimination before they make their way into court. In Georgia, the deadline for filing a charge is generally 180 days after the employee became aware of the employment decision or action upon which the charge is based.

Avoiding Errors And Problems When Filing

Employees and employers alike often trip up during the EEOC process by handling it without the assistance of a lawyer familiar with the requirements. An employee can file a charge on her own, or by going to the local EEOC office and asking the employees there to draft the charge. Employees often assume that they have done everything they need to do to complete the charge process by explaining the situation to the EEOC intake staff and signing the charge form they prepare.

The problem is that the EEOC staff may not have time to question the employee fully, or he or she may not completely understand the facts described, and as a result the employer may be able to prevent the employee from making those claims in court. It is not uncommon for EEOC staff to inform an employee that they do not have a case, when in fact the employee has a valid claim, but may not have explained it properly.

What Happens After A Charge Is Filed?

After a charge is filed, the EEOC will send notice of the charge to the employer (as well as any other parties named). The EEOC will often offer the parties the opportunity to agree to mediation early on, which is a chance to attempt to negotiate settlement through an independent third party; mediation is completely voluntary, and doesn't occur unless both sides agree. Unless the investigator assigned to the charge believes it is very weak, the employer will usually send the employer a list of questions to answer and documents to produce that are related to the claims.

The employer's initial response to the charge can become a key piece of evidence as the case goes forward, so it is important that the employer answers completely, and only after learning all the facts. It frequently happens that an owner or manager of the employer responds to the EEOC without knowledge of all the facts, and without consulting a lawyer, sometimes simply because they don't see any possible merit to the claims. This can be a critical mistake that can create the impression to a judge that the employer was lying about the facts, when in reality the employer just didn't have time to conduct a diligent and thorough investigation.

The EEOC investigative process can take anywhere from a month or two to more than a year. It may involve requests for information from the parties only, or include interviews with the employee and employees at the job site. There are also a number of ways for the process to be completed: the employee may ask the EEOC to stop investigating, or the EEOC may complete the investigation with a "cause" or "no cause" finding ("no cause" to believe discrimination occurred). The majority of cases end with a no cause finding. In either case, the employee is free to file suit on the claims once the process is complete, and in some rare situations, the EEOC will file suit against the employer for the employee.

It bears noting that the EEOC only has jurisdiction over a charge (power to enforce the discrimination laws) if the employer has enough employees to be subject to a given law. For most laws, an employer must have at least 15 employees, but for some laws it is higher (20 employees are required for age discrimination). These rules vary for employees of state and local governments.

Call Roach, Caudill & Gunn LLP, in Canton, Georgia, at 678-487-7463 or toll-free 800-265-1895 to arrange a consultation with an experienced employment law attorney.