Fourth Circuit Rejects Need for Absolute Precision in EEOC Charge

Federal employment law requires employees to first file notice with an administrative agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), before bringing a federal lawsuit claiming discrimination.  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, covering Maryland, Virginia, and other mid-Atlantic states, has grappled for years with how much notice an employee must provide in the administrative process before bringing a discrimination lawsuit.  It has recently decided the issue under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in a case in which an employee did not describe her requested accommodation as the basis for her EEOC charge.   The Court reasoned, however, that as long as the EEOC was put on notice of the requested accommodation, even if it was not set forth in the administrative charge, the plaintiff may be found to have exhausted her administrative remedies.

In Sydnor v. Fairfax County, the plaintiff claimed that following foot surgery she was limited in her capacity to perform all of her employment duties as a nurse for the Fairfax County Health Department and that her employer refused to allow her to use a wheelchair in performing her duties. In her administrative charge to the EEOC, the plaintiff did not describe the proposed accommodation that she sought; however, in an accompanying EEOC intake questionnaire, the plaintiff explained that she must use a wheelchair if moving for any length of time.  She further explained that her supervisor did not want her to use a wheelchair around patients.

After the EEOC issued a right-to-sue notice, the plaintiff filed a complaint against her employer in federal court. In her federal court proceeding, the plaintiff claimed that the reasonable accommodation she should have been offered was to perform her work with a wheelchair. But because this was not articulated in the administrative charge to the EEOC, the district court dismissed the case for failing to exhaust administrative remedies.

The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court, holding that it was sufficient for the plaintiff to describe the need for a wheelchair in an informal submission to the EEOC. The court noted that absolute precision in the administrative charge is unnecessary.  It reasoned that sending the plaintiff back to square one for failing to list the proposed accommodation would frustrate the purpose of notice and conciliation that forms the basis of the requirement to first file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.

It is important to note that this was not a case in which the proposed accommodation was not reasonably communicated to the EEOC.  The plaintiff repeatedly mentioned in an informal submission to the EEOC that she needed to use a wheelchair as a result of her medical condition. Had plaintiff failed to mention the need to use a wheelchair, it is likely the court of appeals would have affirmed the trial court’s decision to dismiss the case. Instead, demonstrating a reluctance to elevate form over substance, the court held that informal statements to the EEOC from which one could reasonably infer what the proposed accommodation would entail are sufficient.

While the effect that Sydnor may have on ADA law may be limited since this case depends on a very unique set of facts, it may result in local federal courts allowing lawsuits to proceed even when the employee does not provide critical information about the basis for the claim in an EEOC charge.