The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) expressly states that a civil action cannot be filed until 60 days after a charge alleging unlawful discrimination has been filed with the EEOC. A primary rationale behind the charge-filing requirement is to allow the EEOC an opportunity to resolve the dispute by informal methods. To that end, the EEOC has developed a specific form, labeled “Charge of Discrimination.” In a decision issued yesterday, though, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a plaintiff should have been allowed to pursue her ADEA claim even though she did not file a formal charge with the EEOC until after she filed her court complaint. In Federal Express v. Holowecki, the Court ruled that plaintiff’s “Intake Questionnaire, and attached six-page affidavit was sufficient to satisfy the ADEA’s charge-filing requirement. The Court reached this conclusion even though the EEOC neither assigned a charge number nor informed Federal Express that a charge had been filed.

In so doing, the Court acknowledged that the employer’s interests “were given short shrift” because there was no opportunity for conciliation or settlement before the lawsuit was filed. To address this issue, the Court suggested that the trial court could stay the court proceedings to allow the EEOC administrative process to take place. The Court acknowledged, however, that this would be an “imperfect” remedy, because “[o]nce the adversary process has begun a dispute may be in a more rigid cast than if conciliation had been attempted at the outset.”

Justice Kennedy wrote the 7-2 Holowecki opinion. Justice Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Scalia joined, that rebuked the EEOC for not maintaining clearly discernable standards to determine exactly what constitutes a charge.  The dissent further predicted that the Court’s failure to apply a clear and sensible rule would render Holowecki "of little use in future cases to complainants, employers, or the agency.”