EEOC moves forward with plan to expedite cases

The Washington field office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission plans to launch a triage system for processing discrimination cases on June 1, despite objections from labor union officials.

In a memo sent to Washington field office staff Thursday, Dana Hutter, acting director of the field office, explained that case reviewers will now work with a supervisory administrative judge to determine whether cases should be dismissed, granted summary judgment or allowed a hearing. EEOC judges can issue summary judgments in favor of either the complainant or the defendant agency if the facts of the case are clear and not in dispute.

"From the beginning, the impetus for this program was the fact that cases were not being processed quickly enough to provide justice to the parties," said Hutter. Still, when he first proposed a triage system in March, it caused an outcry among EEOC union members and civil rights groups concerned that federal employees claiming discrimination would be denied hearings. Their outcry prompted Hutter to meet with union leaders.

Even so, the new plan is little changed from the March proposal in that it will allow agency employees--Washington field office deputy director Silvio Fernandez and possibly state and local coordinator David Gonzalez--to vet incoming hearing requests and categorize them. If cases are processed for summary judgment or dismissal, the parties will not be able to conduct discovery. Hutter stressed, however, that the commission's administrative judges will retain authority to overrule the processing decision, allowing the parties both discovery and a hearing.

A key change from the March proposal is the increased role of a supervisory administrative judge in guiding the agency employees in categorizing cases. Hutter said that he worked with the field office's supervisory judges in drafting the revised plan.

In March, union advocates said that the proposed process change required regulatory approval and should be published in the Federal Register for public comment. Hutter dismissed that claim, saying that he had met with union leaders and felt that he had fulfilled his bargaining obligation.

Andrea Brooks, national vice president for the Women's and Fair Practices division of the American Federation of Government Employees, has threatened to file an unfair labor practices complaint if Hutter's plan is implemented. She also charged that the plan was part of a strategy by EEOC Chairwoman Cari Dominguez to deny hearings to federal employees. Hutter denied that charge, and said that only he was responsible for the creation of the new triage process.

Until now, he said, all cases "were on this slow conveyor belt" with every case granted a set period for discovery. The result, he said, was a lengthy hearing process that now averages 421 days. "The processing of cases ought to be customized to fit the case," he said, adding that "I am confident that there are enough checks and balances that no one--agency or complainant--risks a deprivation of due process."

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