• Supreme Court Defines "Charge" Under the ADEA
  • March 18, 2008
  • Law Firm: Faegre & Benson LLP - Minneapolis Office
  • In its second employment law ruling during the final weeks of February, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the definition of a “charge” of age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). In Federal Express Corp. v. Holowecki, U.S., No. 06-1322, 2/27/08, the Court concluded that any document filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that can reasonably be construed as a request for the EEOC to take remedial action on the employee’s behalf constitutes a discrimination “charge” within the meaning of the ADEA. This ruling settles an important question for employees and employers involved with future ADEA claims.

    Under the ADEA, an employee is required to file a “charge” with the EEOC before taking a dispute to court. However, the term “charge” is not defined in the ADEA. As a result, courts in the various federal circuits adopted a variety of definitions, which made it particularly difficult to determine when employees are entitled to pursue ADEA claims in court.

    In Holowecki, a Federal Express courier submitted to the EEOC a completed intake questionnaire and an affidavit alleging that the company discriminated against older couriers. Although the EEOC did not initiate administrative proceedings in response to those filings, the employee filed suit. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed the lawsuit due to the employee’s failure to satisfy the ADEA charge requirement. On appeal, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit looked to EEOC regulations for guidance and concluded that the intake questionnaire did in fact serve as a “charge.”

    On appeal before the Supreme Court, FedEx argued that courts should not treat an EEOC intake questionnaire as a charge since the EEOC had not done so, given that it failed to initiate administrative proceedings. In a 7-2 decision, the Court disagreed, noting that the ADEA only requires the employee to file a charge before filing suit, and the employee’s right to sue doesn’t depend on the EEOC actually taking action.

    To define the term “charge,” the Supreme Court also looked to internal EEOC directives for guidance. Those regulations, the Court noted, fall short of providing a comprehensive definition of the statutory term and had been implemented on an uneven basis by the EEOC. Regardless, the Court concluded that they are entitled to deference since they have been binding on EEOC staff for at least five years and provide a reasonable interpretation of the meaning of “charge” as a statutory term.

    Accordingly, the Supreme Court adopted the EEOC’s position that the proper test in such instances is whether the filing at issue should be construed as a request by the employee for the EEOC to take action to protect the employee’s rights or otherwise settle a dispute between the employer and the employee. Applying this test in Holowecki, the Court concluded that the intake questionnaire, when combined with the affidavit, constituted a “charge” for purposes of the ADEA.

    The Court also rejected the employee’s proposed definition of a charge. The employee’s proposed standard was that a mere allegation of discrimination along with the name of the employer should be sufficient to constitute a charge. The Court found that this definition would undermine Congress’ intent that the EEOC “act as an information provider and try to settle employment disputes through informal means.”

    Interestingly, Justice Kennedy, who was writing for the majority, also urged the EEOC to consider further revisions of its forms and procedures to “reduce the risk of further misunderstandings.” In the meantime, Holowecki brings much-needed clarity for future parties to ADEA matters.

    Important to note, however, is the fact that EEOC enforcement mechanisms and statutory waiting periods for ADEA claims differ in some key respects from those pertaining to other statutes enforced by the EEOC, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Accordingly, as the Court noted, one “must be careful not to apply rules applicable under one statute to a different statute without careful and critical examination.”