WHERE THE RUBBER MEETS THE ROAD: FOURTH CIRCUIT SAYS ONLY THOSE ALLEGATIONS INCLUDED IN A PLAINTIFF’S EEOC CHARGE ARE FAIR GAME IN A TITLE VII LAWSUIT
When employers are hauled into Court and sued for discrimination after already defending a charge for the same conduct in front of the EEOC or state human rights agency, they usually have a pretty good idea what they are defending. Sometimes employees try to play hide-the-ball with their allegations, however, and that makes those suits harder to defend. Fortunately for employers, at least one Court has taken a stand against that kind of subterfuge.
In a recently issued published opinion in the case of Balas v. Huntington Ingalls Industries, Inc., the Fourth Circuit of Appeals – which covers West Virginia – held that only those allegations contained within a plaintiff’s EEOC charge are within the jurisdiction of the federal courts under Title VII.
In Balas, the plaintiff filed a complaint in federal district court alleging hostile work environment, sex discrimination, failure to promote, and retaliatory discharge under Title VII. In support of her sexual harassment claims, Balas alleged – among other things – that her supervisor frequently commented to her about how much he liked her attire and appearance, regularly discussed his sex life with her, solicited sex from her, regularly made “cat calls” to her despite her rejection of his advances, and hugged her against her will on one occasion.
Meanwhile, in support of her discrimination claim, Balas alleged that her supervisor discriminatorily enforced the employer dress code by sending her home to change on one occasion when she wore a pair of ripped jeans to work, whereas males who dressed similarly were not asked to change. Finally, Balas alleged that she was denied promotions and ultimately discharged on February 17, 2010, because she had complained to her employer about sex discrimination and her hostile work environment.
Prior to filing suit, however, Balas pursued her claim with the EEOC. When she did, Balas completed an intake questionnaire for the EEOC, and also submitted two letters detailing the specific ways in which she was subjected to sexual harassment and discrimination. She also outlined the promotional opportunities she felt she did not receive. Nonetheless, the charge the EEOC ultimately filed on behalf of Balas did not contain many of the incidents of sexual harassment she included in either of her letters or intake questionnaire, and it made no mention of her failure to promote claim, either. Rather, the only specific occurrences included in her charge prepared by the EEOC were the jeans incident, the unwanted hug, and her termination.
The district court determined that it lacked jurisdiction to consider any allegations that were not included in the formal EEOC charge, and dismissed a majority of Balas’ Title VII claims because of the lack of sufficient evidence to support them. When Balas appealed, the Fourth Circuit agreed that dismissal was proper, and rejected Balas’ argument that the district court erred by considering only her EEOC charge and not the intake questionnaire or her letters.
Under Title VII, an employee must first exhaust his or her administrative remedies by filing a charge with the EEOC before filing a discrimination or retaliation complaint in federal court. Sometimes employees suing under state law must proceed first before a state human rights agency, too. In issuing its decision in Balas, the Fourth Circuit Court observed that the administrative process is intended to put the employer on notice of the allegations against it, and said that it is “not at liberty to read into administrative charges allegations they do not contain.” Given that Balas’ employer was never apprised of the contents of her intake questionnaire or letters, neither could be read as part of her formal discrimination charge without contravening the purposes of Title VII.
The Balas decision is an understated victory for employers, particularly in West Virginia and the other states covered by the Fourth Circuit. If employers were forced to defend new allegations in a Title VII lawsuit, it could give employees the opportunity to test certain claims in an administrative forum – where they are obligated to proceed first – and then proceed on different grounds in Court if the agency doesn’t give them the result desired. It also could defeat any incentive employers have to rectify the issues presented at an earlier stage before having to defend potentially new claims in Court. The Fourth Circuit decision in Balas thankfully cuts off these avenues at the pass and ensures that employers defending discrimination and related lawsuits under Title VII aren’t subjected to litigation by ambush.