When federal employees file formal EEOC complaints, regulations require that the agency conduct an investigation within 180 days. (29 C.F.R. § 1614.108). The investigation must “develop an impartial and appropriate factual record” that enables the agency to make findings and, in appropriate cases, to award compensation to the victim.
Unfortunately, agencies are responsible for conducting investigations against themselves. Agencies will sometimes delay investigations well beyond the 180 days that they are permitted under the regulations, and/or the agency will conduct an inadequate investigation. Employees become responsible for requiring the agency to conduct the investigation they should be legally entitled to. The cases below show that the EEOC is taking steps to ensure that agencies cannot just ignore employee’s discrimination complaints and attempt to sweep allegations of discrimination under the rug.
Most investigations are conducted by outside contractors, although many of the DOD components and the VA have internal investigators (who are often quite good, in my experience). Contract investigators often have little incentive to develop evidence on behalf of the complainant employee. Two recent cases highlight how this can become a problem.
The Agency Interviews None of the Employee’s Witnesses
In Julius P. v. Dep’t of Veterans Affairs, EEOC Appeal No. 0120162827 (Mar. 6, 2018), a VA employee based in Texas was told that he could no longer use annual leave in place of sick leave, which had been exhausted. He was later told that he could only take leave for service-connected medical appointments. The supervisor began charging him AWOL when he was late to work instead of allowing him to take annual leave. Demoralized by his supervisor’s callous treatment, the employee began missing work, and requested Family and Medical Leave (FMLA). However, the agency charged him with AWOL.
During the investigation, the employee provided the EEO investigator with a list of six witnesses to interview. The investigator failed to interview any one of these witnesses. Instead, the investigator only sought information from the supervisor and other management witnesses.
The EEOC’s regulations require that an investigator identify and obtain “all relevant evidence from all sources regardless of how it may affect the outcome.” In this case, the EEOC found that this investigation “unfairly restricted the [employee’s] ability to prove . . . discrimination[.]” The EEOC noted that:
An investigation must include “a thorough review of the circumstances under which the alleged discrimination occurred; the treatment of members of the Complainant’s group as compared with the treatment of similarly situated employees . . . and any policies and/or practices that may constitute or appear to constitute discrimination, even though they have not been expressly cited by the complainant.”
The EEOC remanded the investigation back to the agency to interview these witnesses and to conduct a thorough investigation as required under federal regulations.
Agencies can Ignore Witnesses only if Interviews are Shown to be ‘Unduly Burdensome’
In a similar case, Emiko S. v. Dep’t of Commerce, EEOC Appeal No. 0120170543 (Apr. 27, 2017), the EEOC reversed the agency’s finding of no discrimination where the agency failed to interview nine of the ten witnesses identified by the complainant employee. The one witness who was interviewed stated that she saw a “downward spiral” in the relationship between the employee and his managers after the employee began to complain about her treatment. Despite this, the investigator claimed that the other witnesses probably did not have relevant information.
The EEOC found instead that there was no basis for the investigator to fail to interview these witnesses identified by the complainant employee. An investigator may only ignore witnesses identified by the complainant employee if contacting the witnesses would have been “overly burdensome”—meaning that information to be provided by these employees was clearly outweighed by the time and effort needed to conduct the interview. The investigator must include a reason why this is the case.
Employees face an uphill battle in getting investigations completed by the agency. Unfortunately, it has in many instances become the job of the employee to hold the agency to account for investigators failing to do their job adequately. Fortunately, the EEOC is policing the agencies and requiring complete investigations.
- Dixie K. v. Dep’t of Justice, EEOC Appeal No. 0120150443 (Feb. 28, 2018)(EEOC ordered the agency and administrative judge to frame complainant’s issues correctly and to address them on remand).
- Darius C. v. U.S. Postal Serv., EEOC Appeal No. 0120162461 (Jan. 26, 2018)(EEOC ordered a supplemental investigation by the agency where officials refused to respond to the investigator’s questions).
Another problem that federal employees face is an agency that delays or completely fails to conduct any investigation at all. The agency has a legal obligation under the regulations to conduct an investigation and to do so in a timely manner. Failure to do so not only deprives the employee of the opportunity to obtain evidence to support a discrimination claim, it prevents the EEOC from effectively overseeing federal agencies’ compliance with the anti-discrimination laws.
In Complainant v. Deborah Lee James (Air Force), EEOC Appeal No. 0720090009, the EEOC issued sanctions against the Air Force for delaying in providing the EEOC with the complainant’s file. The agency claimed that it had tried to contact the administrative judge about the case. However, the administrative judge noted that she had been present in the office the entire week and her email and phone number had been provided to the agency’s attorney. The other excuses that the agency provided for its failure to comply with requirements were found not to be a ‘good cause’ for delaying the case.
The EEOC has issued default judgment in certain cases where the agency had no good cause for failing to investigate allegations of discrimination properly. That is, it has found in favor of the employee without allowing the agency to provide evidence in its own favor.
- Ross v. USPS, EEOC Case No. 0720180001 (2018)(the availability of discovery to the employee did not cure the deficiencies in the agency’s own investigations, and default judgment was proper).
- Candace C. v. GSA, EEOC Case No. 0720160013 (2016)(alleged mail room issue was not addressed until appeal, which was too late).
The EEOC has issued this ultimate punishment in EEOC cases where the agency has simply ignored its obligation to conduct an impartial investigation. Hopefully more cases like these will not have to be decided by the EEOC before the agencies get the message.
Employees need to stay vigilant
The EEOC can only issue sanctions against the agency when the employee comes forward and holds the agency’s feet to the fire. Employees who are facing long waits and uphill battles with agencies should consider filing for sanctions. These cases should provide employees with ammunition to get sanctions and to hold agencies accountable.