The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (which has jurisdiction over Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) recently addressed whether an employee could pursue a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) when the claim was not included in the original administrative charge filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and the subsequent amendment to add the required charge was untimely. The Third Circuit ruled that employees must still exhaust their administrative remedies under the ADA, which may require a timely amendment of charges, especially when the scope of the later charge is not within the scope of the original charge.
The employee, who was hearing impaired, applied for and obtained a different position with the same employer. During his training for that position, the employee requested a two-way radio as an accommodation for his hearing impairment, but he was not provided with one. The employee completed his training, but the employer’s trainer refused to certify the employee’s ability to perform the required job duties. The employee was then transferred back to his previous position.
Approximately nine months after being transferred back to his original position, the employee filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC against the employer alleging discrimination under the ADA. The employee claimed that the employer denied his transfer to a new position because of his disability and his request for a reasonable accommodation. The employer responded to the claim by denying discrimination. Nothing developed from the claim. Seven months later, the employer terminated the employee for unrelated job performance reasons. The employee was allowed to return to work under a “last chance agreement” with the employer, but he was terminated again for the final time a few months later, due to a safety violation.
Approximately three months after the employee’s final termination, the employee mailed a handwritten letter to the EEOC alleging that the employer terminated him in retaliation for filing his discrimination charge. A year later, the employee filed an amended charge alleging both disability discrimination, which was the subject of the original charge, and retaliation, the issue first brought up in his handwritten letter.
Approximately four and a half years after the employee’s final termination, the EEOC issued a reasonable cause determination that the employee’s termination was retaliatory. The EEOC’s investigator found that the employer disciplined the employee more harshly for work rule violations and regulations than a non-disabled similarly situated employee. After unsuccessful settlement efforts, the EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter.
District Court’s Decision
The employee sued the employer in Pennsylvania federal court (“District Court”) alleging a single count of retaliation under the ADA. The employee’s complaint did not allege disability discrimination or failure to accommodate.
The District Court dismissed the case finding that the employee failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, which is a prerequisite to filing suit in federal court. Explaining its reasoning, the District Court stated that the ADA requires filing of an EEOC charge within 300 days of the challenged employment action to be timely. Even though the employee timely filed his original charge of discrimination, he did not file his amended charge alleging retaliation—the sole basis in his federal lawsuit—until 521 days after his final discharge from employment. The District Court also found that nothing prevented the employee from filing of an amended charge. Lastly, the District Court also held that the employee’s retaliation claim was not within the scope of his original EEOC charge for discrimination and therefore a timely amended charge was required.
Appellate Court’s Decision
On appeal, the Third Circuit agreed with the employer. The Third Circuit clarified that a later filed EEOC charge must fall “fairly within . . . the investigation arising from the initial charge” and “reasonably be expected to grow out of” the original charge to be timely and avoid the requirement of filing a new or amended charge. Where, as in this case, the two charges are too remote in time and substantively different, the subsequent investigation cannot reasonably be found to fall within the scope of the original charge, and the failure to timely file and/or amend the latter charge within the ADA’s required 300-day timeframe will constitute a failure to exhaust administrative remedies.
This case provides employers with a procedural ally in fights against EEOC charges: an employee’s failure to adhere to the ADA’s exhaustion rules can be fatal to his subsequent claim. This case also shows how long some of these ADA-related claims can be dragged out, and that employers must continue to stay aware of any claims made. Even with this ruling, however, it is an important reminder that employers should continue to deal with and act appropriately when faced with accommodation requests under the ADA to decrease such ADA suits altogether.
R. Eddie Wayland is a partner with the law firm of King & Ballow. You may reach Mr. Wayland at (615) 726-5430 or at email@example.com. The foregoing materials, discussion and comments have been abridged from laws, court decisions, and administrative rulings and should not be construed as legal advice on specific situations or subjects.