February 22, 2011
As many employers have learned the hard way, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has the ability to investigate claims made by an employee in a Charge of Discrimination, and issue a “cause finding” in a Letter of Determination. A “cause finding” is the EEOC’s written determination that unlawful discrimination has occurred in the workplace. Inevitably, after such a finding, the current or former employee will hire an attorney and file a lawsuit against the employer seeking monetary damages for the alleged discrimination. And, when discrimination cases go to trial, the EEOC’s findings are often seen and read by the jury. Because of this, EEOC cause findings sometimes lead employers to settle cases they otherwise would defend because of the potential effect the finding of “cause” might later have on a jury. After all, it can’t help an employer’s case when the federal government has sided with the employee by issuing a Letter of Determination explaining that, after a full investigation, a determination has been made that “cause exists” to believe that the employer violated one of the laws protecting an employee’s civil rights.
However, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed a lower court’s decision to exclude an EEOC “cause finding” from evidence in a civil trial after concluding the cause finding was more harmful than helpful. In Weathersby v. One Source Manufacturing Technology, LLC, Mr. Weathersby sued One Source under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act claiming that One Source did not hire him because he was African-American. At trial, Mr. Weathersby sought to introduce into evidence a Letter of Determination by the EEOC. In the letter, commonly referred to as a “cause finding”, the EEOC concluded that One Source had violated Title VII when it did not hire Weathersby. The trial court excluded the “cause finding” from evidence, explaining that the letter had little probative value as it did not include sufficient facts to support its legal conclusions. As a result, the trial court felt that the letter could potentially lead the jury to give the EEOC’s decision improper weight rather than make an independent decision based on all the evidence presented at trial. After the jury found in favor of One Source and decided that Once Source did not discriminate against Mr. Weathersby because of his race, Mr. Weathersby appealed the decision. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit agreed with the trial court’s exclusion of the EEOC finding because the EEOC failed to specifically identify how it arrived at the conclusion that discrimination had occurred.
Weathersby may provide some comfort to companies in similar circumstances, not because it involved new arguments but because the arguments were successful. Clearly, the specific facts of each case will always be critical to how a court rules on these types of evidentiary issues at trial. However, employers who feel coerced into settling an otherwise defensible case solely because the EEOC believes that discrimination occurred may now have reason to defend themselves despite such a finding.