Picture this scenario:
You come into your office one morning to learn that an employee has filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claiming that you failed to accommodate his disability reasonably and then terminated his employment because of his disability.
As if that isn’t challenging enough, many months afterwards, you receive a request from the EEOC to provide the names and contact information of his fellow employees who worked for you at the same time as the original complainant, as part of the EEOC’s investigation into the complaint.
This type of scenario isn’t uncommon; the state agency investigating discrimination complaints (CHRO) often requests information on co-workers as part of the investigation and sometimes requests that these co-workers be available for interview.
But here’s where the scenario gets interesting — and this story is based on a ruling on a motion to dismiss in federal court just this week in the EEOC v. Day & Zimmerman case. The employer’s in-house counsel — seemingly with reference to outside counsel as well — decided to notify the co-workers of the request.
Indeed, the employer sent a letter to approximately 146 individuals, all of whom were members of same union as the Complainant and all of whom had worked, or continued to work, for the employer. Whether you view the letter as an innocuous helpful note, or a nefarious threat will depend on your perspective.
In the letter (which you can download here at part of the employer’s filings — page 49), the employer identified the complainant by name, and indicated that he had filed a charge of discrimination on the basis of disability. The letter went on to identify the Complainant’s union local, the medical restrictions on his ability to work, and the accommodation he had requested. It further informed the recipients of their right to refuse to speak to EEOC investigator and offered them the option to have the employer’s counsel present if they chose to speak to EEOC.
Is there anything wrong with the letter?
According to the EEOC, yes (download here). The EEOC alleged that this letter constitutes retaliation against the original Complainant for opposing conduct made unlawful by the ADA. The EEOC further alleged that the letter interfered with the Complainant and the recipients of the letter in their the exercise or enjoyment of rights protected by the ADA, including the right to communicate with EEOC, the right to participate in an EEOC investigation, and the right to file a charge of discrimination with EEOC.
The employer, as you might imagine, vehemently disagreed and filed a motion to dismiss the complaint (download here). It argued that the lawsuit “exemplifies the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”)’s enforcement position of ‘do as I say, not as I do.'” It noted that the EEOC, through the lawsuit itself, publicized the same information it now criticizes the employer for doing, even though the employer was obligated — it argues — to do so by the Rules of Professional Conduct (simply, the ethical code for attorneys).
The employer also argued that the letter explicitly re-affirmed the employer’s policy against retaliation, its commitment to equal employment opportunity, and the “employer’s position that a decision to speak with the EEOC investigator ‘will not have an adverse impact on your current or future employment.'”
The federal court rejected the employer’s motion to dismiss (ruling available here for download); in doing so, it emphasized that under the standards governing review of such motions, it must construe the federal complaint in a light most favorable to the EEOC. After doing so, the court concluded that the allegations were sufficient to state a claim for ADA violations even though the Complainant had already been terminated from employment at least 17 months prior to the letter being distributed.
As a starting point, the court noted that “Routinely, courts have held that, when an employer disseminates an employee’s administrative charge of discrimination to the employee’s colleagues, a reasonable factfinder could determine that such conduct constitutes an adverse employment action.” And the court concluded that, again construing the facts most favorably to the EEOC, the letter was sent just three months after the employer learned that the EEOC intended to pursue the complaint seriously:
Here it is plausible that the first opportunity to retaliate against [the Complainant], whom they had already terminated, was when the EEOC provided a list of fellow union members to whom Defendant could disseminate the potentially damaging EEOC charge.
The court also addressed the seldom-litigated issue of an interference claim under the ADA. It noted that neither the Supreme Court nor the Second Circuit has outlined a test for such a claim. (Though query whether the court overlooked the Second Circuit case of Gradziano — or at least had written its opinion before that one came out.)
Here, the court concluded that while there was no allegation of any direct evidence of the employer’s intent behind the letter, the issue of the employer’s intent “is a question of fact that cannot be resolved on a motion to dismiss.”
Moreover, the fact that the employer disclosed “sensitive personal information” about the Complainant could dissuade the Complainant and the co-workers from communicating further with the EEOC.
Obviously, this lawsuit if far from over. Both the EEOC and the employer have staked out positions that make a compromise seem unlikely. And so the case will likely proceed to discovery and then another round of motion practice.
For the rest of us though, this case — and the issues it touches upon — is again worth following.
In the meantime, employers should be very wary of mass notifications of discrimination charges to co-workers (former or current) in response to an EEOC inquiry. Left unclear from the decision is whether there are any circumstances in which the employer can notify co-workers of the inquiry and at what level of detail. Would an e-mail indicating that the EEOC may be contacting them but without the details of the Complainant’s complaint pass muster? How strongly should an employer emphasize its policies prohibiting retaliation?
Employers are going to want to tread very carefully for now and consult their counsel about any communications going out.