Discrimination Law for Employees and Employers
In Connecticut, employees are protected by broad anti-discrimination laws that are known collectively as the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (CFEPA). These laws apply to employers and employees that are based in Connecticut, and they prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on race, color, religious creed, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, ancestry, mental disability, mental retardation, learning disability, and physical disability. Sexual harassment generally falls within the category of discrimination based on sex.
Similar protections also exist under federal laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination against employees based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Administrative Process
Employees who believe that they have been the target of discrimination are generally prohibited from suing until they have first pursued a complaint with the state and federal agencies charged with investigating discrimination. In almost every circumstance, the employee must file a complaint with either or both the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO).
The EEOC and CHRO will accept and investigate discrimination claims through an administrative process that can be quick and inexpensive. Therefore, if a resolution can be reached administratively, the process benefits both parties. From an employee’s perspective, the best practice is to file duplicate complaints with both the EEOC and CHRO. Agency investigators will accept the complaint, obtain a detailed response from the employer, and then reach a decision regarding the validity of the claim. If complaints are not resolved administratively, then the agencies will issue “right to sue” letters to the employee. These letters permit the employee to sue the employer for all of the claims that were filed but not resolved. Without a right to sue letter, the employee will almost always be barred from court.
Both employees and employers frequently underestimate the importance of being specific and exhaustive at the inception of the grievance process. Without guidance, an employee may fail to provide information that is essential to the investigation. Likewise, it is risky for an employer to respond to an investigator without understanding what is important to the investigation and what may be required in order to avoid liability. The process imposes strict and narrow time frames on all participants. Claims that are not provided to the investigator cannot be approved for suit. Employers and responsible individuals that are not initially named are virtually immune from suit. Therefore, it is always recommended that employees and employers have counsel when handling a discrimination complaint.
Understanding the State and Federal Overlap
The EEOC and the CHRO work together pursuant to a “workshare agreement” that exists between the agencies. This workshare agreement permits either agency to assist with processing claims that would normally be handled by the other. Therefore, a complaint filed with one agency can be “dual filed” with the other simply by requesting so on the complaint form. In addition, a release to sue from one agency may apply to claims that were brought in the other. For example, in a recent case, Lennon v. Dolce Vida Medical Spa, a judge recognized that under state and federal law, a release to sue issued by the CHRO was sufficient to permit an employee to sue for both state and federal claims, even though her federal claims were still pending with the EEOC.
The Risk of Reliance on Dual Filing and Dual Release
Nevertheless, another recent case has limited long-standing notions of dual filing and dual release. In Paris-Purtle v. State, a judge determined that, although a release to sue from the CHRO may be sufficient to authorize suit for federal claims, the reverse is not true. Specifically, a release to sue from the EEOC does not permit an employee to sue for state claims.
The Paris-Purtle employee filed her claim for age discrimination with the EEOC. At that time, she requested that the complaint be dual filed with the CHRO. The CHRO either lost her complaint or never received it, and so no case for her state law claims was ever initiated. The employee did not realize that her dual filing request was unsuccessful. This would come back to haunt her.
The EEOC eventually issued a release to sue letter, and the employee brought a lawsuit for both her federal and state claims. The court determined that, while the EEOC release to sue permitted the employee to litigate her federal claims in court, she had not satisfied the requirements necessary to initiate suit for her state law claims. Specifically, she had failed to file a complaint with the CHRO, and did not receive a release to sue from the CHRO. The court dismissed her state law discrimination claims.
Lessons to be learned from Paris-Purtle
If you are an employee:
(1) Do not rely on one agency to dual file your employment discrimination complaint with the other. Take the extra step of filing separate complaints with the CHRO and the EEOC, even if they look and sound identical.
(2) Do not assume that a release from one agency applies to claims that are handled by the other.
(3) Consider seeking the advice of an employment law attorney before you file your claim. A good attorney will ensure that all of your claims are properly filed within the narrow time parameters, and that you do not waive your rights with respect to any of your claims, including claims that you may not recognize. A good attorney will also understand the various types of relief that you may request.
If you are an employer:
(1) Do not assume that a release to sue from either the CHRO or the EEOC applies to all of your employee’s claims.
(2) Do not assume that your employee has satisfied all of the prerequisites that are necessary for each of their claims.
(3) Consider seeking the advice of an employment law attorney as soon as you receive notice of an administrative complaint. A good attorney will ensure that none of your rights are waived in the administrative process, and that your employee is required to abide by all of the rules governing the administrative procedure.
If you are considering an employment discrimination claim, or if your business must respond to such a claim, talk to an employment lawyer about the administrative procedures and the strict time parameters that apply to your case. Cacace, Tusch & Santagata can help.