Tenth Circuit: Charge Put Company On Notice Despite Missing Information

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals recently restored a claim that had been dismissed due to defective filing with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Jones v. Needham Trucking, LLC (W.D. Okla. 2017).

Bryan Jones worked as a mechanic for Needham Trucking in Erick, Oklahoma, from May to November of 2014. According to Mr. Jones, he was fired because he would not have sex with Ms. Needham, his direct supervisor and a shareholder of the business.

Mr. Jones completed an intake questionnaire for filing a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. He checked “Sex” and “Retaliation” as the reasons for discrimination, and also wrote out “sex har[as]sment.” He alleged another mechanic “was treated better because he had sex with Ms. Needham,” and he listed two witnesses, both of whom would testify that they knew of the sexual harassment. In response to questions seeking more detailed explanations, Mr. Jones wrote “see attached.”

The attachment never made it to the EEOC. Nevertheless, the EEOC prepared a charge of discrimination on behalf of Mr. Jones.

After the EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter, Mr. Jones filed suit against Needham Trucking and Ms. Needham. Mr. Jones alleged both hostile work environment and quid pro quo discrimination that culminated in his firing.

Before filing suit, a plaintiff alleging harassment must first exhaust administrative remedies by filing a sufficient charge of discrimination with the EEOC. The purpose of administrative exhaustion is to give notice of the alleged violation to the company being charged and to give the EEOC an opportunity to conciliate the claim. The charge document must contain the general facts concerning the discriminatory actions later alleged in the legal claim.

In determining whether Mr. Jones exhausted his administrative remedies, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals looked at the charge form and asked whether the facts alleged were sufficiently related to the claim such that those facts would prompt an investigation of the claim.

The court held that a charge need only describe generally the alleged discrimination in order to give notice of an alleged violation to the charged party. “Mr. Jones’s form has the boxes checked for his allegations of sex-based discrimination and retaliation, and it recounts that he was ‘subjected to sexual remarks,’ that ‘Julie Needham terminated [his] employment,’ and that no reason was given for the termination,” the court observed. “We think this was sufficient to alert Needham to the sexual harassment allegations and to trigger an investigation that would look into what the sexual remarks were, why Mr. Jones was fired, and whether the two events were connected.”

This case is a reminder that defects in handling at the EEOC will not always end in dismissal. Nonetheless, when charged with discrimination, it is important to raise those defects to ensure the best possible outcome. The Tenth Circuit comprises Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah.