What is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Why is It Blocking My Way to the Courthouse?

What Is the EEOC?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency tasked with enforcing the federal employment laws in the United States. It has the authority to bring a lawsuit on behalf of employees who have been wrongfully terminated in violation of federal law, which includes Title VII of the Civil Rights (prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, as well as retaliation for reporting discrimination), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). It also serves as the federal agency that investigates all charges of discrimination brought by employees against their current or former employers under these same federal laws.

Most clients who come to us with claims of employment discrimination will interact with the EEOC on the latter investigatory basis of the EEOC’s authority. That’s because almost all cases of discrimination under Title VII, the ADA, and the ADEA (along with a few others) MUST be filed with the EEOC before you can bring a private lawsuit against your employer. The EEOC serves as the first step in the litigation process (in legalese, an “administrative prerequisite”), and you cannot reach the courthouse until you go through the EEOC first.

The EEOC process can be a long, drawn out affair that ultimately provides no benefit to the employee at all. But because it’s required before bringing a lawsuit, a brief overview of that process would be helpful for those readers who are considering filing a charge of discrimination.

First Step: Filing the Proper Documents

First, the employee must file a charge of discrimination and a questionnaire with the EEOC. Both documents are forms that are provided by the EEOC and must be completed before the EEOC can start its investigation. In South Carolina, the employee has 300 days from the date of discriminatory conduct by the employer to file the charge of the discrimination. This a strict time limit, so don’t delay if you think you’ve been discriminated against. Filing the charge and questionnaire can be done with or without hiring a lawyer to represent you. Often, if we think the employee’s case is strong, we will want to draft the charge ourselves to ensure that all proper legal grounds are included in the charge. But the client has the option of pursuing the claim on their own at this stage.

Second Step: Waiting

Second, the employee must wait at least six months while the EEOC investigates the charge. Typically, the EEOC will send a letter to the employer along with the charge of discrimination and ask the employer to respond to the allegations in what’s called the employer’s position statement. In this statement, the employer will attempt to provide a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for why the employee was fired or treated the way he or she was. The EEOC may also interview witnesses and the parties, ask for documents ore recordings, or otherwise try to gain information about the case from each party. Honestly, in my experience, the EEOC will often do very little beyond sending the charge to the employer.

Third Step: Reviewing and Suing

Finally, at the end of six months, the employee can ask the EEOC to end its investigation and issue a Notice of a Right to Sue, which is the document that the employee must have before filing a lawsuit. We also ask the EEOC to provide us with a copy of its investigative file so that we can review any documents it received from the employer prior to file our lawsuit. Overall, the process from filing the charge to getting the right to sue letter can take 6-9 months, although it can take even longer, depending on the circumstances. At the end of the EEOC process, then you can finally file your lawsuit.

Take Action

If you believe your employer has discriminated against you on the basis of your race, sex, age, disability, national origin, color, or religion, give our office a call to set up a consultation with our experienced employment discrimination attorneys. We can walk you through the EEOC process and answer any questions you might have. Remember, you have just 300 days to file the charge, so don’t delay.