EEOC Findings not Dispositive in Employee’s Discrimination Suit

Just because the EEOC finds that an employee was subjected to a retaliatory termination does not mean an automatic win in the courts. The plaintiff-employee in this case learned that the hard way.

In Sellers v. BNSF Railway, the employee claimed that she was terminated in retaliation for filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against her employer (which was ultimately settled). Several years later, the employee was reprimanded and suspended for work-related issues. Months after the initial reprimands, the employee was again reprimanded for violating work attendance guidelines. Due to her continued violations of the employer's rules, the employee was terminated.  

Roughly a year later, the general manager offered to reinstate the employee, citing "managerial leniency." The offer of employment was contingent upon the employee maintaining a full time working relationship and required that she adhere to the attendance guidelines. She was warned that violations would lead to her termination and permanent dismissal. The employee accepted the offer and returned to work. 

Months later, she again violated the workplace policies in terms of her operation of one of the trains. The employee was suspended for four months pending an investigation. During that time frame, the employee filed a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The investigation ultimately concluded and the employee was reinstated to service, subject to  three-year probationary period. 

Several months later, the employee violated the employer's rules again with respect to the operation of the train. Specifically, she continued to exceed her track warrant authority and had to put the train into "emergency" mode in order to stop, which was considered a serious violation of policy. Another investigation took place, and this time, the employee was terminated. The decision to terminate was based upon the entirety of her disciplinary record. Her supervisor denied that the termination had anything to do with the EEOC charge, as he claimed he did not know about it.  

The EEOC ultimately concluded, based upon the prior complaint, that the employee was subjected to a hostile work environment based upon her sex, and that she was retaliated against because she complained about discrimination. The EEOC further noted that this employee was terminated for engaging in conduct that others similarly engaged in, but were not reprimanded or terminated.

Upon obtaining her right to sue, the employee filed suit against her employer alleging sex discrimination and retaliation. The employer filed a motion for summary judgment. In opposition, the employee sought to rely upon the EEOC findings. The Court expressly denied this, saying:

"...the district court is not bound by findings set forth in an EEOC determination letter regarding the plaintiff's claims of discrimination.  The court, however, is 'required to take an EEOC investigative report into consideration' because the 'failure to do so would be 'wasteful and unnecessary.'  The EEOC's findings of discrimination are 'not dispositive' in later discrimination suits. " (internal citations omitted)

The court ultimately concluded that the EEOC's conclusions here are only partially relevant to the instant claims, as the agency did not specifically conclude that the employee was discriminated against in connection with her prior suspensions or discharge. Further, the court noted that not all the documents in the EEOC's file were competent summary judgment evidence.

Ultimately, the court concluded that the employee could not prevail on her discrimination claim because she could not show that the employer's reasons for suspending and dismissing her were pretextual. Further, the court found that the employee similarly could not meet her burden of establishing that retaliation played a role in the decision to terminate her, and that she would not have been fired but for her filing of the EEOC charge. 

For more information about this case. 

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