Supreme Court hears case on EEO complaints

ksaldarini@govexec.com

The Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in a case that will decide whether the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission can order federal agencies to pay compensatory damages stemming from discrimination complaints filed by federal employees.

In deciding the case, the high court will address the question of whether employees alleging discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 must go through a jury trial to obtain compensatory damages. It will also determine if federal employee claimants must spell out the damages they are seeking when filing their charges.

The case, West v. Gibson (98-238), stems from a sex discrimination complaint filed by Michael Gibson, a Department of Veterans Affairs employee, against the department. Gibson originally asked for back pay and a transfer. Later, he indicated he would settle the case for a cash award. On appeal, the EEOC ordered VA to promote Gibson and provide back pay.

VA failed to comply with the EEOC's order on time, so Gibson brought his case before federal district court, and requested compensatory damages for mental and emotional distress. The district court denied his claim, saying he should have requested compensatory damages before he filed the suit.

Gibson argued that the EEO counselor originally assigned to help him file his claim did not inform him of his rights to ask for damages. He also pointed out that the EEO claim form does not ask the claimant what damages are sought; rather, it focuses on the alleged discriminatory act. Gibson claims he should not be stopped from filing suit for damages in federal court just because he failed to use the term "compensatory damages" at the administrative level.

Gibson's argument won sympathy from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "It just strikes me as strange," she said, that there's no real way for person to know he or she is expected to ask for compensatory damages at the outset of a complaint. Ginsburg also noted a conflict of interest-agencies' EEO counselors advise employees on their rights but also are employed by the target of the employees' complaints.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of Gibson's claim for damages. The court ruled Gibson need not have presented his claim for damages to the EEOC because the EEOC doesn't have authority under Title VII to award such damages. Allowing the EEOC to award damages in an administrative setting would be a violation of the agency's right to a jury trial, the court ruled. But in a previous case, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that EEOC did have such authority.

Some analysts say that under the Seventh Circuit interpretation, the EEOC case procedure would no longer provide an alternative way for feds to settle disputes outside of court. It would also mean increased litigation and work for both claimants and agencies.

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