By Meghan Droste, August 14, 2019
According to the EEOC’s federal sector data, harassment is the most common issue in federal sector EEO complaints, with over 8,000 filed in fiscal year 2018. See Form 462 Complaints Tables.
Unfortunately, the improper fragmentation of harassment claims is one of the most common errors agencies make when dismissing complaints and claims. Based on data from fiscal years 2009-2012, 57 percent of the reversals of agency dismissals were in cases involving dismissals for failure to state a claim, while 24 percent were in cases involving dismissals for untimely EEO contact. See Preserving Access to the Legal System: Common Errors by Federal Agencies in Dismissing Complaints of Discrimination on Procedural Grounds.
Fragmentation — the breaking up of a hostile work environment claim into separate and distinct events and claims — is a common cause of these improper dismissals. Although the Commission has tried to correct the issue for years, agencies, unfortunately, continue to fragment claims.
The Commission’s decision in Reita M. v. Department of Transportation, EEOC App. No. 2019001791 (June 4, 2019), provides an example of what fragmentation can look like and why the Commission will ultimately reverse an agency’s dismissal that is a result of fragmentation. In support of her complaint, the complainant provided 38 pages of incidents of harassment. From that, the agency identified only two claims, one of disparate treatment based on six events that took place in September-November 2016 and February 2018, and one of harassment based on seven incidents that occurred from June 2015 through April 2018. The agency then dismissed the disparate treatment claim as untimely, finding that all of the incidents occurred more than 45 days before the complainant contacted a counselor, and dismissed the harassment claim for failure to state a claim because the incidents were sporadic and not sufficiently severe or pervasive. I have seen agencies do this far too many times (most recently a few weeks ago). It is unsurprising that the Commission reversed the dismissal in the Reita M. case. The agency clearly ignored that the complainant was alleging a pattern of ongoing harassment and instead looked at only a handful events, and then broke them down further into two distinct claims.
If you will permit me to stand on my soapbox for a moment, I cannot say strongly enough that agencies must try harder to avoid fragmenting claims. From the complainant perspective, it incorrectly prevents them from pursuing otherwise valid claims of harassment and results in drawing out an already lengthy process if they file an appeal. From the agency perspective, it “substantially increases case inventories and workloads when it results in the processing of related matters as separate complaints.” See EEOC Management Directive 110, Ch. 5, § III. If nothing else, you can save yourself the headache of defending an appeal the agency will lose if the agency accepts hostile work environment claims without fragmentation. Droste@FELTG.com