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High Court Defines ‘Charge’ in Age Discrimination

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on the definition of a “charge” of age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).

Under the ADEA, an employee is required to file a “charge” with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) before the dispute is escalated to court. But the term “charge” is not defined in the ADEA. Thus, the circuits have adopted various definitions, leading to extraordinary difficulty in determining when employees are entitled to file ADEA claims in court.

In this case a Federal Express courier filed an EEOC “Intake Questionnaire” and an affidavit alleging that FedEx discriminated against older couriers. The EEOC didn’t initiate its administrative proceedings in response to these documents, yet the employee filed suit, which was dismissed for failure to satisfy the ADEA charge requirement. On appeal, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals looked to EEOC regulations for guidance, determining that the intake questionnaire did serve as a “charge.”

On appeal before the Supreme Court, FedEx argued that if the EEOC didn’t treat the intake questionnaire as a charge by initiating administrative proceedings, then the court shouldn’t treat the documents as a charge, either. The Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, disagreed, noting that the statute only requires the employee to file a charge before filing suit, but that the employee’s right to sue doesn’t depend on the EEOC actually taking action.

For its definition of “charge,” the Court looked to EEOC internal directives, under which the documents should constitute a request for the EEOC to take remedial action on behalf of the employee. When combined with the affidavit in the FedEx case, the Supreme Court found that remedial action was requested and that a “charge” was filed.

Unfortunately, the EEOC’s failure to proceed on the documents in this case cost FedEx and the employee the benefit of an inexpensive, informal mediation process. Their sacrifice has, however, settled an important question for other employees and employers involved in future ADEA claims. FEDERAL EXPRESS CORP. v. HOLOWECKI (06-1322 Syllabus)