Q&A: Sharolyn Whiting-Ralston
Court recently affirms employer defenses in discrimination cases
Q: The agencies that govern the workplace — the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Department of Labor, for example — have made it easier for employees to file discrimination claims in recent years. Does that mean employers face tougher battles defending themselves in court?
A: Not necessarily, at least not from a procedural standpoint. In fact, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals recently handed down a decision in Daniels v. UPS which clarified several rules of employment discrimination law, all of which favored employers. In striking down several of the plaintiff's claims in the lawsuit, the court strictly followed the law, which states that employees must fully exhaust the administrative remedies available to them before filing a federal lawsuit.
Q: What does the law provide in the form of administrative remedies for claims of discrimination, and what are the employee's responsibilities?
A: Under federal law, an employee must file a complaint with the EEOC within 180 days of the discrimination occurring. The EEOC serves as a clearinghouse of sorts and is responsible for reviewing the claims to determine whether it believed discrimination did, in fact, occur. In some instances, the EEOC will even pursue a federal discrimination lawsuit on behalf of the employee, rather than having the employee pursue it on his or her own.
There's one notable exception to the 180-day rule. If the alleged discrimination occurs in a state which has its own discrimination agency and a work-share agreement with the EEOC, the employee has 300 days to file a complaint. Obviously, that extension of time can be a disadvantage to an employer, who must go back further in time to investigate the complaint.
Q: What's the deadline for employees who file a complaint in Oklahoma?
A: 180 days. The Oklahoma Legislature recently passed a bill abolishing the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission, the state agency responsible for handling discrimination claims. And while the Oklahoma attorney general's office has taken on the responsibility of civil rights enforcement for claims involving violations of the state's anti-discrimination law, it does not currently have a work-share agreement with the EEOC. Therefore, the longer extension of time does not apply in Oklahoma.
Q: Is all this good news or bad news for employers?
A: The 10th Circuit's recent decision is good for employers in that it confirmed defenses employers have had and should have at their disposal in litigating employment discrimination claims, including whether the employee filed a timely complaint. The 180-day rule is also good for employers in that it limits, to some extent, an employer's risk to things that have happened within the past year and not years or decades ago. It is always to the employer's advantage to conduct a timely and thorough investigation of any claims of discrimination just as quickly as they are notified of them.
PAULA BURKES, BUSINESS WRITER