U.S. Supreme Court Eases Filing Burdensfor Employment Discrimination Claimants

June 20, 2002

The United States Supreme Court began the year by issuing two decisions that lessen the burdens placed upon employees filing employment discrimination lawsuits against employers. In the first, Swierkiewicz v. Sorema, N.A., the Court held that a plaintiff in an employment discrimination lawsuit does not need to plead specific facts establishing a prima facie case using the McDonnell Douglas framework. Instead, the employee must plead only a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the employee is entitled to relief.

The McDonnell Douglas standard arose from a 1973 United States Supreme Court opinion that sets out the legal framework for employment discrimination lawsuits. The framework requires the plaintiff/employee to show:

  1. membership in a protected class,
  2. qualifications for the job in question,
  3. an adverse employment action, and
  4. circumstances supporting an inference of discrimination.

The Court ruled, however, that the McDonnell Douglas framework is an evidentiary standard and not a pleading requirement, thereby lessening the obligation on the employee in initially filing suit against an employer. The Court held that an employee’s pleading need only allege facts that, if proven, would entitle them to relief.

The Court followed the Swierkiewicz opinion with yet another decision lessening employees’ legal burdens. The case of Edelman v. Lynchburg College arose after Lynchburg College denied academic tenure to professor Leonard Edelman. Edelman sent a letter to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the federal agency responsible for enforcing federal fair employment practices laws, claiming tenure was denied him because of gender, national origin and religious discrimination. Edelman’s allegations were, however, not made under oath. The EEOC advised Edelman to file a formal charge of discrimination within the 300-day statutory time limit and sent him the agency’s official charge form for execution and submission. Edelman finally filed his sworn EEOC charge 313 days after he was denied tenure.

Edelman subsequently sued the College. The College contended Edelman’s suit was untimely because he failed to file a sworn discrimination charge with the EEOC within 300 days of the tenure decision. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that administrative discrimination charges be filed with the EEOC within 300 days of the alleged discriminatory act and that the written charge be made under sworn oath or affirmation. Edelman, however, argued that, because EEOC regulations permit an otherwise timely filer to verify an unsworn charge after expiration of the 300-day filing deadline, he should be allowed to proceed with his case under this regulatory “relation-back” rule.

The trial court and appellate courts agreed with the College and found not only that Edelman failed to file a sworn charge within the applicable 300-day time limit, but also found that Edelman's letter did not constitute “a charge” under Title VII because neither the employee nor the EEOC treated it as such.

Edelman appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which reversed the lower courts’ decisions. The Court held that defects in oaths or affirmations can be cured by an employee, even after the filing deadline has passed, and that the filing of a sworn charge “relates back” to the filing date of the unsworn complaint. The Court further held that the EEOC's “relation-back” regulation is an unassailable interpretation of federal discrimination law. The Court left open a potential victory for employers by not expressly ruling on whether or not the original letter Edelman sent the EEOC constituted a “charge” as required by federal law. That issue will be decided in subsequent litigation.

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