An employee who alleged she was subjected to a sexually harassing work environment, gender discrimination, and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) filed a Charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). However, almost all of the facts supporting the employee’s Charge were put in the EEOC intake questionnaire and letters to the EEOC, rather than in the EEOC Charge Form. As such, only the claims and facts set forth in the Charge were considered by the Court and they were insufficient to state the discrimination and retaliation claims raised by the employee.
In the case of Balas v. Huntington Ingalls Industries, Inc. (2013), the United States Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a ruling from the Eastern District of Virginia that the Plaintiff, Karen Balas, could not maintain claims which were solely asserted in her EEOC questionnaire and in letters to the EEOC. The Court ruled that an administrative charge serves a vital function in the process of [potentially] remedying unlawful employment practices because it serves to alert the employer of the alleged wrongs committed; allows for an investigation into the alleged wrongful activity by the employer and the EEOC; and allows for the EEOC to seek conciliation between the parties if it finds merit to the charges. The Court reasoned that since a plaintiff’s employer is not put on notice as to the claims and facts alleged in the EEOC questionnaire or in letters privately written by a plaintiff to the EEOC, only those claims formally made part of the EEOC Charge were allowed to move forward in a lawsuit against an employer.
The Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court was correct in its refusal to consider any of Ms. Balas’ Title VII claims that were not included in her EEOC Charge; and that the Court had no jurisdiction to hear such claims because the Plaintiff had failed to administratively exhaust her remedies before filing such claims in federal court.
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Although not contractually required to do so, many employers offer their management-level employees a severance package in the event of a reduction-in-force or some other non-disciplinary event which requires an employer to terminate a relationship with a managerial employee. The terms and compensation contained in severance packages usually depend upon salary, years of service, and work performance and/or value of the employee to the employer. However, if an employee can show that the terms of a severance package offered to them are less favorable than those offered to other, similarly situated employees, the employee may be able to state a claim for discrimination.
In the case of Gerner v. City of Chesterfield, Virginia (2012), the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed a lower court ruling from the Eastern District of Virginia and found that although a severance agreement is offered upon employment termination and is not a contractual right, it is nevertheless an employment benefit upon which a discrimination claim may lie. Finding that the district court judge (Hudson, J.) erred in his analysis of the legal standard, the appellate court held Title VII protects current and former employees from discrimination, as well as those who have not been hired and have been discriminated against in the hiring process. Further, the Court found that Ms. Gerner's allegations that she was offered a less favorable severance package than her male counter-parts under the City’s reduction-in-force plan, were sufficient to allege an adverse employment action for a gender discrimination claim. In making its ruling, the Court relied upon U.S. Supreme Court precedent and decisions from other Circuit Courts.
This decision by the Fourth Circuit, which is the highest federal appellate court for Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and the Carolinas, is a reminder to employers that they must be vigilant in making sure that employment benefits (even severance packages which are often viewed as “voluntary” or “discretionary”) are provided on an equitable basis. Alternatively, employers must make sure that they have a strong, non-discriminatory, reason for any difference in the provision of such benefits among similarly situated employees.
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