Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Scope of Charge Controls Title VII Litigation, Even Following A Million $ Verdict

I know that I have been doing this for some time now when, for the first time, I report on the appellate outcome of a MDV that also appeared on this page. On August 3, 2003, the post was MDV: Indian Prison Guard With Long History of Unanswered Complaints Awarded $1.16 Million . Even though he was able to keep that verdict intact (although reduced by Title VII damage caps) through post-trial proceedings at the district court stage, the same did not hold true on appeal. Chacko v. Patuxent Institution (4th Cir. 11/29/05) [pdf].

The issue on which the case turned was a basic question, frequently overlooked or minimized - did the litigation exceed the scope of the initial charge of discrimination? If so, as the Chacko court found, the remedy is to dismiss the claim for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, which is what the Court did.

In doing so the Court stressed the importance of the charge and the administrative process:
The filing of an administrative charge is not simply a formality to be rushed through so that an individual can quickly file his subsequent lawsuit. Rather, Congress intended the exhaustion requirement to serve the primary purposes of notice and conciliation.
Although noting that "lawyers do not typically complete the administrative charges, and so courts construe them liberally," its holding makes clear there are limits to that liberal construction.

The Court summarized its view of the case:
Chacko's "centerpiece" at trial was that coworkers continually made derogatory national-origin remarks to him over the course of his twenty-year career, and that supervisors did not discipline these coworkers, laughed at their comments, and may have joined them. ... The sharp differences between this evidence and the allegations in Chacko's administrative charges compel the conclusion that he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. The administrative charges at bottom alleged specific episodes of harassment. None of them mentioned coworker harassment or national-origin epithets. In contrast, Chacko's case at trial encompassed harassment over his two decades at Patuxent. It relied heavily on testimony that primarily coworkers (and not supervisors) called him national-origin epithets. The administrative charges thus dealt with different time frames, actors, and conduct than the central evidence at trial.
One problem for litigants is that the liberal construction of administrative charges and the corollary rule, acknowledge by the Court that:
A Title VII plaintiff can of course exhaust administrative remedies if a reasonable investigation of his administrative charge would have uncovered the factual allegations set forth in formal litigation.
mean there is no bright line by which one can confidently predict the outcome of the argument.

But the Court did provide one key holding when it refused to find that "specific factual allegations couched in broad terms like 'harassment' or 'hostile treatment' ... invariably encompass a limitless number of other factual worlds." The attempt to gloss over a gap between evidence at trial and the facts alleged in the charge by use of conclusory words just got a lot harder.

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