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US Supreme Court allows FedEx age discrimination lawsuit

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] ruled Wednesday that a group of former and current Federal Express employees met the requirements for filing an age discrimination lawsuit against the company under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The decision came in Federal Express v. Holowecki [Duke Law case backgrounder; JURIST report], where the plaintiffs filed an "intake questionnaire" with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) [official website] before filing their lawsuit in federal court. The ADEA requires that plaintiffs alleging discrimination file "a charge alleging unlawful [age] discrimination" with the EEOC and wait 60 days before filing a lawsuit, but there is no statutory definition of that phrase. The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in favor of the plaintiffs [PDF text], and the Supreme Court affirmed that decision, saying that the EEOC "acted within its authority in formulating the rule that a filing is deemed a charge if the document reasonably can be construed to request agency action and appropriate relief on the employee's behalf" and that the EEOC's "determination is a reasonable exercise of its authority to apply its own regulations and procedures in the course of the routine administration of the statute it enforces."

The ADEA's 60-day waiting period is designed to allow the EEOC time to notify the employer about the allegations and investigate and resolve the allegations before a lawsuit is filed. In this case, the EEOC failed to notify FedEx about the allegations, but the Court wrote that the plaintiffs should not be penalized because of the agency's mistake:

The Federal Government interacts with individual citizens through all but countless forms, schedules, manuals, and worksheets. Congress, in most cases, delegates the format and design of these instruments to the agencies that administer the relevant laws and processes. An assumption underlying the congressional decision to delegate rulemaking and enforcement authority to the agency, and the consequent judicial rule of deference to the agency's determinations, is that the agency will take all efforts to ensure that affected parties will receive the full benefits and protections of the law. Here, because the agency failed to treat respondent's filing as a charge in the first instance, both sides lost the benefits of the ADEA's informal dispute resolution process.

The employer's interests, in particular, were given short shrift, for it was not notified of respondent's complaint until she filed suit. The court that hears the merits of this litigation can attempt to remedy this deficiency by staying the proceedings to allow an opportunity for conciliation and settlement. True, that remedy would be imperfect. Once the adversary process has begun a dispute may be in a more rigid cast than if conciliation had been attempted at the outset.

This result is unfortunate, but, at least in this case, unavoidable. While courts will use their powers to fashion the best relief possible in situations like this one, the ultimate responsibility for establishing a clearer, more consistent process lies with the agency. The agency already has made some changes to the charge-filing process. ... To reduce the risk of further misunderstandings by those who seek its assistance, the agency should determine, in the first instance, what additional revisions in its forms and processes are necessary or appropriate.
Read the Court's opinion [text] per Justice Kennedy, along with a dissent [text] from Justice Thomas. AP has more.

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