The U.S. Supreme Court’s Federal Express v. Holowecki decision lowered the bar on what qualifies as a “charge” for purposes of an employee satisfying the procedural prerequisites for getting into court on a federal discrimination claim. Commentators, like Jon Hyman at the Ohio Employer’s Blog, have criticized Holowecki as unfair to employers:
My problem with this ruling is that Fed Ex never had any meaningful way to respond to the Intake Questionnaire. That form was never sent to it, and it had no notice that a proceeding had even been initiated until after the actual charge was filed 6 months hence. Thus, an employee can proceed to federal court on an age discrimination class action lawsuit, without the employer, who had no notice that a charge had even been filed with the EEOC, having the benefit of trying to settle the claim pre-lawsuit. During the EEOC’s conciliation process, the stakes are decidedly much lower than they are once an actual lawsuit is filed. For one thing, claimants usually are not represented by counsel at the EEOC. The same is rarely true in federal court. This decision prejudices employers who will be denied any opportunity to resolve a case via the EEOC’s informal conciliation process.
The Supreme Court’s decision noted this unfairness and suggests that staying the court proceedings to allow conciliation and settlement might mitigate it:
The employer’s interests, in particular, were given short shrift, for it was not notified of [employee’s] complaint until she filed suit. The court that hears the merits of this litigation can attempt to remedy this deficiency by staying the proceedings to allow an opportunity for conciliation and settlement. True, that remedy would be imperfect….
In Holender v. Mutual Industries North, Inc., the Third Circuit cited the Supreme Court’s language and remanded a case involving a technically deficient charge of discrimination to the district court that granted summary judgment with a footnote instruction to “entertain a motion under Holowecki to stay the proceedings while the parties try to settle this matter.” Although the Third Circuit is merely following a directive from the high court, staying the proceedings doesn’t address the problems created for an employer and is a waste of time for the following reasons:
- The damage to an employer’s case is already done by belated notice of the employee’s discrimination claim. Documents have not been preserved and witnesses may be unavailable because the employer wasn’t notified within the 300-day limitations period for filing a charge. Notice failures could add years to the limitations period.
- The EEOC’s conciliation process is predicated on the agency’s “expertise” in addressing employment claims and benefits from informality. This point was noted by the Court in its comment that “[o]nce the adversary process has begun a dispute may be in a more rigid cast that if conciliation had been attempted at the outset.”
- The federal court process has ample settlement opportunities without staying the proceedings.