By Meghan Droste November 14, 2018
Parties in EEO cases have to make many decisions throughout the process — from the complainant deciding at the outset whether to remain anonymous during the counseling period to the agency deciding whether to accept or reject an administrative judge’s findings. One of the earliest decisions for an agency is whether to accept a complainant’s claims for investigation. In my experience, the answer is usually yes. The agency will accept most, if not all, of the claims and the complaint moves forward. Sometimes, however, an agency will decide to dismiss an entire complaint at the beginning for failing to state a claim. While the EEOC’s regulations require agencies to do so when appropriate, this decision has the potential to trip up an agency because it can lead to inappropriate weighing the merits of the complaint.
Two recent decisions from the Commission illustrate potential pitfalls in dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim. In Vickey S. v. U.S. Postal Service, EEOC App. No. 012018055 (Aug. 15, 2018), the complainant asserted that she felt forced to resign when she experienced retaliation for speaking with a union steward, and when her supervisor slammed keys down in front of her, required her to drive in a vehicle with no heat, and threatened to remove her; the complainant alleged that all of these incidents occurred after she notified her supervisor that she was pregnant. The agency dismissed the claim, finding that the complainant was not aggrieved and the incidents were not sufficiently severe or pervasive. The Commission reversed, as it often does when an agency determines at such an early stage that a claim is not sufficiently severe or pervasive.
In Mack R. v. Department of Agriculture, EEOC App. No. 0120181607 (Aug. 3, 2018), the complainant alleged the agency discriminated against him when it issued a Letter of Warning (LOW) to him. The LOW included a statement that the agency would not place it in the complainant’s official personnel file. As a result, the agency dismissed the complaint, finding that it did not state a claim because the complainant had not articulated a harm or loss. In its decision reversing the decision, the Commission noted that if the agency had reduced the LOW to a discussion and expunged the LOW from the complainant’s record there would be no harm. As the agency did not do so, and the LOW still existed in the agency’s files, albeit not in the complainant’s OPF, the complainant could allege that he suffered a harm or loss.
While agencies certainly have an obligation to dismiss complaints that do not state a claim, such as claims that allege violations of laws that are not under the EEOC’s jurisdiction, I recommend erring on the side of caution when the concern is not that the complaint could not possibly state a claim, and instead that it could not state a strong claim. Droste@FELTG.com