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Williams v. CSX Transportation Company, Inc., No. 09-5564 (6th Cir. June 28. 2011)

An EEOC charge, the essential first step to filing a Title VII (or ADEA or ADA) case, must characteristically include the basic information that makes up the employee's allegations against the employer. Regrettably, many employees stumble at this stage because they do not have an attorney. But a panel of the Sixth Circuit, dividing 2-1, holds that a bare-bones charge and accompanying "charge information form" was sufficient. 

Williams v. CSX Transportation Company, Inc., No. 09-5564 (6th Cir. June 28. 2011): The employee, a clerk at a small Bruceton, Tennessee train facility, alleged that - as an African-American woman - she suffered sexually- and racially-motivated harassment. (Additional claims of discrimination were also alleged, but are not the subject of this appeal.) Among the allegations, a supervisor named Wingo:

"allegedly told her that 'the problem with this country' was that single mothers 'can't have the love of God in their hearts'; that women want equal rights 'but aren't paying equally'; and that, as a black woman, Williams only had to submit an application to get a job."

The district court judge dismissed the sex harassment claim at the summary judgment stage, holding that the employee did not meet the EEOC charge-filing requirement on that count; that is, she supposedly failed to present that claim to the EEOC for investigation before filing her lawsuit. Her race harassment case proceeded to trial, but the judge granted judgment as a matter of law on that claim at the close of the plaintiff's case.

The panel divides into three opinions to resolve the harassment claims on appeal.

Judge Merritt, writing for the court, holds that the court below erred in dismissing the sex harassment claim on summary judgment. (Judge White concurred in a separate opinion, while Judge Rogers dissented.) The employee had filed two papers with the EEOC: a signed but unverified "Charge Information Form," which contained specific allegations of sex harassment, and the official "Charge" form, which the employee did verify but which did not include the same details.

The majority holds that the employee's filings constituted a "charge" under the recent decision Federal Express Corp. v. Holowecki, 552 U.S. 389 (2008), because the documents met all three prerequisites of a "charge.".

First, the documents were verified. Although the first document was not signed under perjury, "[f]or the technical purpose of verification, we conclude that Williams's second [charge] filing amended - and verified - her first filing. This result is only fair in light of the fact that nowhere did the 'Charge Information Form' suggest that Williams needed to sign it under penalty of perjury, and Williams was proceeding pro se at the time."

Second, the documents contained "sufficiently precise" information about the sex harassment allegations. The original charge information form was very detailed. Although the charge form itself was sparing in comparison, it did meet the bare minimum standard according to the panel majority:

"The box for 'sex' [discrimination] was marked. Within the field entitled 'date(s) discrimination took place,' the 'earliest' date listed was September 2, 2004 - the date when Wingo allegedly made the sexually hostile statements to Williams - and the box indicating that the discrimination was a 'continuing action' was marked. These facts strongly suggest that the second filing complained not only of discrimination and retaliation . . . but also of a continuing sexually hostile work environment that existed while Williams worked at the Bruceton facility."

Finally, the papers clearly made out a request for enforcement rather than an informational inquiry, meeting the Holowecki requirement for a charge. The panel majority remands the claim back to the district court for further proceedings.

The panel also split 2-1, with a different majority, on the merits of the employee's racial harassment claim, which went to trial. The court's opinion (together with Judge Rogers' concurring opinion) holds that the district court did not err in granting judgment as a matter of law on this claim, holding that the few racially-motivated statements made to the employee over a two-day period were insufficiently severe or pervasive to constitute actionable Title VII harassment. Judge White dissenting on this disposition, holding that the district court and panel majority ignored other trial evidence that the employee was singled out for unpleasant duties (picking up trash, cleaning feces off the floor of the bathroom) that white employees did not face.

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