The “piggybacking” lawsuit can be one of the most dreaded and costly situations for an employer. This scenario occurs when a non-charging party tries to join in or piggyback onto a discrimination lawsuit based upon a Charge of Discrimination filed by another employee.
For example, “Joe Chargemeister” files a Charge of Discrimination on behalf of himself and other similarly situated employees. Joe eventually sues under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. “Feisty Suemeister,” a disgruntled employee, later tries to join Joe’s lawsuit even though she did not file a Charge with the EEOC. Under certain circumstances, Feisty may be able to join Joe’s lawsuit and maintain a Title VII cause of action without having filed a Charge with the EEOC.
A recent Court decision addressed a twist to the above scenario—whether Feisty could bring an independent and separate lawsuit from Joe’s, but based upon his Charge. In Price v. Choctaw Glove and Safety Company, the Court reaffirmed the viability of the piggybacking rule in limited circumstances but did not apply this rule to independent lawsuits filed by a non-charging party.
As should come as no surprise, the origin of these issues began long ago. Ms. Price worked for Choctaw Glove and Safety Company and, in December of 2000, she filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC. In her Charge, she asserted that the company was discriminating against women based on their sex by relegating them to lower paying positions. She filed her Charge on behalf of all present and future female employees of the company. Ms. Price obtained her right-to-sue notice and filed a class action lawsuit under Title VII. She eventually made a motion for class certification to allow additional employees to join in the lawsuit. The motion, however, was denied.
The company’s victory was short lived. After the denial of the class certification, thirty-six female Plaintiffs filed a separate class action lawsuit against the same company and based upon the same facts alleged in the Price class action lawsuit. None of these thirty-six Plaintiffs filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC.
At issue was whether the thirty-six female Plaintiffs needed to file a Charge with the EEOC or instead could piggyback onto the Charge filed by Ms. Price. The Court noted that there were several requirements to piggyback:
- The employee must be similarly situated to the person that filed the EEOC Charge;
- The charge must have provided some notice of the collective or class-wide nature of the charge; and
- The employee that filed the EEOC Charge must actually file a suit that the piggybacking employee may join.
While these requirements appear to have been met here, the Court noted that the piggyback rule was never meant to be used to allow a non-charging party to bring his or her own independent lawsuit based upon another party’s charge. Here, the thirty-six females did not want to join the Price lawsuit and instead filed a separate lawsuit. Since the rule did not apply in this context, the thirty-six Plaintiffs failed to exhaust administrative remedies when they did not file any Charges of Discrimination with the EEOC. Consequently, their claims were dismissed.
While this case presents good news for employers in that it makes it more difficult for employees to piggyback their claims, the decision highlights the importance of proactive solutions in the workplace. As part of being proactive, make sure you have up-to-date anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies that are not limited to just sexual discrimination and harassment. When a complaint is made by an employee, be sure to take prompt, remedial action and investigate. A good investigation can help uncover issues that were not mentioned that also need to be addressed and corrected. Finally, make sure your managers have received recent training on how to address complaints in the workplace. As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and may have saved this company thousands of dollars.