On March 15, 2013, the Fourth Circuit held that any Title VII claims based only on allegations included in a Complainant's intake questionnaire and attached letters, but not in the Complainant's formal charge, cannot be pursued in court. Balas v. Huntington Ingalls Indus., Inc., 2013 WL 1019625 (4th Cir. March 15, 2013).
Under Title VII, an employee must first exhaust his or her administrative remedies before filing a discrimination or retaliation complaint with the court. An employee exhausts his or her administrative remedies by filing a charge with the EEOC or a state or local employment practices agency. In many cases, the employee completes an intake questionnaire or other forms and provides supporting documentation to the agency as part of the charge-filing process but, ultimately, may rely on the EEOC or other agency to prepare the formal charge.
In Balas, the plaintiff submitted an intake questionnaire and sent a letter to the EEOC detailing allegations that she experienced a hostile work environment, that she repeatedly complained about the conduct to her employer and that, despite her complaints, she was terminated. Balas also alleged that she was denied opportunities for promotion because of a complaint she voiced to her supervisor over what she believed was discriminatory enforcement of the dress code. Nonetheless, the charge the EEOC ultimately filed on behalf of Balas did not include many of the incidents of alleged sexual harassment she had listed in her letter and intake questionnaire and did not include her failure to promote claim.
The EEOC eventually dismissed the charge, and Balas subsequently filed suit in federal court alleging, among others things, a failure to promote claim. The district court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to consider any allegations that were not included in the formal EEOC charge, and the Fourth Circuit agreed.
The Fourth Circuit initially observed that the administrative process is intended to put the employer on notice of the allegations against it. Therefore, the court concluded that it was "not at liberty to read into administrative charges allegations they do not contain," and that "[t]he intake questionnaire and the letters [the Complainant] submitted to the EEOC cannot be read as part of [the Complainant's] formal discrimination charge without contravening the purposes of Title VII."
The Balas decision is important because it demonstrates the importance of closely comparing the allegations in an employee's charge with the claims asserted in a subsequent lawsuit.