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The term “harassment” within an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charge places an employer on notice that an employee is alleging a “hostile work environment” in violation of Title VII, according to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Fozyia Huri filed an EEOC charge against her employers at the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, alleging that “During my employment, I have been subjected to harassment because of my religion and national origin. I filed internal complaints, however, the harassment continued. I believe I have been discriminated against because of my religion, Muslim, and national origin, Saudi Arabian, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended.”
After the EEOC issued her a right-to-sue letter, Huri filed suit in federal district court setting forth more fully her allegations that the defendants subjected her to a hostile work environment on the basis of her religion (Islam) and national origin (Saudi Arabian). Specifically, in her federal court complaint, Huri alleged that she always wore a hijab and was the only employee who was an Arab and Muslim. She further alleged that her supervisor was a devout, vocal Christian who was unfriendly to her from the moment the two were introduced. The supervisor allegedly told Huri that one of her colleagues was a “good churchgoing Christian.” The supervisor later allegedly told a co-worker to work with a “good Christian” rather than with Huri, who was “evil.” Additionally, the supervisor allegedly asked several employees to hold hands, and, when they did so, the supervisor said a prayer “in the name of Jesus Christ.”
The defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Huri failed to exhaust her administrative remedies before filing her federal lawsuit. The defendants argued that Huri’s federal complaint contained allegations that were not within her original charge of discrimination and therefore were improperly before the court. The federal district court agreed and dismissed Huri’s federal court complaint.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit reversed the dismissal. The 7th Circuit noted that the primary purpose of the EEOC charge requirement is twofold: It gives the EEOC and the employer a chance to settle the dispute, and it gives the employer notice of the employee’s grievances. While the defendants argued that Huri’s EEOC charge did not give them notice of her allegations, the 7th Circuit disagreed, finding that, by highlighting the absence of the phrase “hostile work environment,” the defendants read the EEOC charge too narrowly and conveniently overlooked simple but important language: “During my employment, I have been subjected to harassment because of my religion and national origin.” The court found that in the context of Title VII cases, the word “harassment” frequently describes the conduct that defines the phrase “hostile work environment.” As such, the defendants were on notice that Huri was alleging a hostile work environment.
Huri v. Office of the Chief Judge of the Cir. Ct. of Cook Cty., 7th Cir., No. 12-2217 (Oct. 21, 2015).
Professional Pointer: While an EEOC charge should place an employer on notice as to the conduct the charging party alleges as violating anti-discrimination laws, employers have opportunities to resolve such matters before a charge is even filed. By implementing internal dispute mechanisms and educating employees on the existence of those mechanisms, employers can investigate and attempt to timely resolve complaints before a matter reaches the level of an EEOC charge or federal lawsuit.
Thomas R. Revnew is an attorney with Seaton Peters & Revnew, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Minneapolis.
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