EEOC official defends proposal to expedite cases

An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission official on Wednesday defended a proposal to dramatically change how certain discrimination cases are handled.

Under the proposal outlined in a March 25 memo, two Washington, D.C. field office employees -- Silvio G. Fernandez, deputy field office director, and David Gonzalez, field office state and local coordinator -- would assess cases and determine whether they should be dismissed, granted summary judgment or allowed a hearing.

Dana Hutter, acting director of the field office, defended the measure on Wednesday, contending that the proposal aims to cut processing times for cases where the facts are not in dispute, or where a claim fails to meet procedural requirements.

"Where it's appropriate, that's a good thing because it means faster resolution of the case for both" parties, Hutter said.

During the 1990s, the number of federal employees requesting hearings before EEOC administrative judges grew by about 120 percent, and the perennially cash-starved agency failed to keep pace. The backlog of cases rose by 300 percent. The average time EEOC took to process a hearing request ballooned from 173 days in 1991 to 320 days in 1998. In recent years, the increased use of alternative dispute resolution procedures like mediation have reduced those backlogs and delays slightly, but they remain a significant problem for the EEOC today.

In November 2002, commission chairwoman Cari M. Dominguez held a hearing where she and other agency commissioners expressed their desire to speed the EEOC hearing process.

"More than 23,000 complaints of discrimination are filed annually by federal workers nationwide," Dominguez said. "The system is so overburdened that many of these complaints stagnate for years before they're resolved." P> Hutter said the initiative has not been implemented and he would continue to work with the agency's union leadership to iron out problems before it is. On Wednesday, Hutter met with Regina Andrew, president of local 3614, the Washington-area unit of the National Council of EEOC Locals, a branch of the American Federation of Government Employees.

Andrew said she told Hutter that the claims initiative marked a substantial change in working conditions for union members, including agency's administrative judges, and that the policy shift must be bargained. She said the proposal would permit agency employees who are not trained to adjudicate cases determine how certain cases should be processed, impinging on the role of the agency's administrative judges.

The initiative, she said, also would mark a change in existing EEOC regulations and therefore should go through the official regulatory process, which requires the agency to post its proposal in the Federal Register, and open it to public comment before finalizing it.

Hutter disagreed, calling the change an unsubstantial procedural shift. But unless Hutter rescinds the program or posts it in the Federal Register, Andrew said she would file an unfair labor practice complaint with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, the agency that resolves union-management disputes.

Hutter insisted that the change would not substantially affect union employees, because administrative judges will still have authority to reject the recommendation of the agency employees and schedule a complaint for a hearing.

"I am concerned that there is a perception among some people in the civil rights community that this process would curtail an individual's rights," he said. "Nothing in this process mandates that any case be treated any particular way. It just allows for smoother processing."

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