By Dora Lane
When asked about a discrimination charge sent to them months ago, a client once answered “I did not know what to do with it, so I threw it in the trash.” Needless to say, that was a bad idea. Unfortunately, many employers do not understand their obligations when faced with a discrimination charge and that can backfire if the charge is not informally resolved.
What is a discrimination charge?
Ordinarily, before an employee can bring a harassment, discrimination, or retaliation lawsuit in court, the employee must “exhaust their administrative remedies.” In plain English, they have to file a complaint (called a “charge”) with one of the administrative agencies responsible for enforcement of the respective employment laws before they sue the employer in court.
In Nevada, a charge may be filed with either the Nevada Equal Rights Commission (NERC) (state administrative agency) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) (federal administrative agency). Because of a work-sharing agreement between the two agencies, a charge filed with NERC is also deemed filed with the EEOC (though the opposite is not true). A charge ordinarily includes the name of the employee who submitted it, a brief summary of the employee’s allegations, and certain applicable deadlines. Where the charge is filed matters because different requirements for responding to it apply.
What are the differences between responding to a NERC charge versus an EEOC charge?
An employer should respond to any discrimination charge, regardless of the agency in which it was filed, or risk an adverse determination based only on the employee’s evidence. However, there are differences in the type of information you must provide and the timing of your response, depending on which agency sends you the charge.
EEOC charge notifications are usually accompanied by Requests for Documents/Information. These requests must be answered and submitted along with a position statement addressing the allegations in the charge. The requests are frequently quite sweeping, requiring a lot of time and attention. NERC does not usually include Requests for Documents/Information in its charge notification packets. Rather, such requests may be sent – on a case-by-case basis – as part of the investigation process. (Of course, the EEOC may also request additional information during the course of its investigation.)
Another difference is the timing of submitting a position statement if the charge proceeds to mediation (called “Informal Settlement Conference” by NERC). If you receive a charge notification from NERC, the notification comes in a packet, which also usually contains an Election of Response form. That form lets you choose whether or not you wish to participate in an Informal Settlement Conference, which is automatically scheduled on a certain date. If you do not respond by the election deadline or you decline the conference, the charge is ordinarily placed into investigation.
Even if you choose to participate in the Informal Settlement Conference before NERC, however, you still must submit a position statement approximately a week before the conference. A potential cost-saving measure is to provide a brief, summary position statement first, in anticipation that the matter will resolve at the Informal Settlement Conference, and reserve the right to supplement at a later date in the event it does not.
By contrast, with EEOC charges proceeding to mediation, you are only required to submit a position statement if the case does not settle during mediation. That said, in some cases, it may be useful to give the mediator a brief factual background offering your company’s perspective prior to the mediation.
What if I did not get notice that I can mediate or participate in an Informal Settlement Conference?
If you receive a NERC charge notification without an Election of Response form, you might consider contacting NERC to ask for one. NERC schedules Informal Settlement Conferences as a matter of course, and it is highly unusual not to be invited to one. Sometimes lack of invitation has resulted from inadvertent administrative oversight so if you want to pursue early settlement, ask for a conference.
If you receive an EEOC charge notification that does not allow for mediation, it may stem from various reasons, which may or may not be a cause for concern. For example, there might have been an unintentional failure to check the “Mediation” box. Or, it is possible that the complaining party was not interested in mediation. Or, in the worst case scenario, the charge was not eligible for mediation because it was characterized as a “Category A” charge. “Category A” charges involve matters considered priorities by the EEOC, allegations of widespread legal violations by the employer, or other matters where the EEOC has concluded that further investigation would probably result in a cause finding (i.e., determination against the employer).
If you are interested in mediating an EEOC charge, consider contacting the EEOC to inquire whether mediation would be available, even if the mediation box is not checked, as the EEOC’s response may offer some information as to the basis for the initial mediation unavailability. And, while the EEOC would rarely admit that the charge is “Category A,” that information might enable you to prepare for the EEOC’s upcoming investigation.
What should I do when I get the charge?
First and foremost, you should immediately preserve all relevant documents and information, in both paper and electronic format. You should also suspend all automatic electronic deletion policies and direct your employees not to destroy anything related to the allegations in the charge. In some cases, it may be appropriate to make forensic images of computer hard drives to preserve the integrity of metadata and other electronic information.
Second, if an internal investigation has not already been conducted, you should investigate the complaining party’s allegations and begin gathering relevant information to prepare for defending the charge. Sometimes that includes collecting employee statements which can later be used to support your response to the charge.
Finally, take your obligation to provide a position statement seriously. Position statements should be prepared by – at a minimum – an experienced human resources professional. Better yet, contact your employment counsel. Position statements not only shape the administrative agencies’ investigations and conclusions, but they are also discoverable in litigation. So, even though employment disputes are not criminal in nature, it is wise to heed the Miranda warning that “anything you say will be used against you” in court.
Bottom Line: Responsibilities Flow From Receipt of a Charge
As tempting as it may be to ignore or dismiss an EEOC or NERC charge, resist the temptation and take steps to protect your organization from potential liability. Deadlines are triggered from the charge notification. Failure to preserve all relevant evidence can result in severe sanctions, including ruling against your organization on the ultimate discrimination, harassment, or retaliation issue. Failing to conduct an internal investigation can limit your ability to properly defend against the employee’s claims and to determine your possible liability. In short, no good can come from ignoring a charge. Instead, follow the steps outlined above to put you in the best position to handle the allegations and minimize liability to your organization.