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The U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico recently opined on the extent to which the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) must disclose the identities of those on whose behalf it files a lawsuit.
The court system is designed such that an accused has a right to confront the accuser. The accuser, however, is not always the individual who is alleged to have been directly injured by unlawful conduct. Such is the case, for example, when the EEOC brings a lawsuit on behalf of aggrieved employees. An employer faced with such a legal action faces a challenging question—who am I claimed to have wronged?
In this case, an Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) lawsuit was brought by the federal agency on behalf of three correctional officers who complained that they were denied promotions, harassed and retaliated against because of their age. In addition, the EEOC alleged on a class basis that the New Mexico Department of Corrections had similarly discriminated against other, unidentified individuals. Among other things, the EEOC alleged that a manager "instilled a culture of age discrimination that continues to be applied."
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Equal Employment Opportunity]
The Department of Corrections moved to dismiss the complaint with regard to the unnamed individuals on two bases. First, it argued that identification of the individuals alleged to have been aggrieved was required under federal court pleading rules. Second, with particular regard to ADEA lawsuits, it argued that individuals must be named as "party plaintiffs."
With regard to the first argument, the court held that the EEOC need not specifically name individuals in order to comply with federal pleading requirements. It noted that, as a government agency serving the public interest, it has an independent right to seek relief for affected employees. Since the EEOC alleged the nature and duration of the purported unlawful conduct, as well as details about the class of individuals impacted, the court found that the naming of the particular employees allegedly harmed was not required of the EEOC in order to state a claim. It concluded that, assuming the truth of the allegations as had been set forth in the complaint, "it is not difficult to envision how the alleged discrimination impacted more than three workers."
As for the second argument, the court noted that ADEA precedent establishes an entitlement to back wages and liquidated damages only for employees specifically named in the complaint. Rather than dismiss the lawsuit, however, the court permitted the EEOC an opportunity to file an amended complaint that identified the individuals for whom it was seeking relief.
EEOC v. State of New Mexico Department of Corrections, D. N.M., No. 15-879 (Dec. 4, 2017).
Professional Pointer: Government agencies have massive resources to pursue claims that involve a substantial number of employees who may, for example, be subject to a systemic violation of the law. Human resource professionals are well-advised to take proactive actions to ensure that workplace practices are legally compliant. Valid policies that are either ignored or misapplied may result in significant liability exposure.
Scott M. Wich is an attorney with Clifton Budd & DeMaria, LLP in New York City.
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