fourth circuit.bmpBy Rebecca Bjork and Christopher J. DeGroff

The Fourth Circuit’s recent decision in Sydnor v. Fairfax County, Virginia, No. 11-1573 (4th Cir. June 19, 2012), cautions employers that the Americans With Disabilities Act’s exhaustion requirement does not force EEOC charges to be the mirror image of subsequent claims presented in court.  The ruling – though not reached in a workplace class action – is nonetheless important for employers facing complex litigation, for the Fourth Circuit made significant pronouncements with respect to the amount of detail required in an EEOC charge – upon which virtually all employment discrimination class actions are positioned. 

Sydnor stems from a Virginia district court’s decision to dismiss Carolyn Sydnor’s ADA case, as a result of her failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Judge Wilkinson reversed and remanded dismissal of Sydnor’s claim on the grounds that her administrative charge provided her employer with ample notice of the allegations against it. Noting that the “goals of providing notice and an opportunity for an agency response would be undermined … if a plaintiff could raise claims in litigation that did not appear in his EEOC charge,” Judge Wilkinson reasoned that “we may not erect insurmountable barriers to litigation out of overly technical concerns.” Id. at 5.

Background Of The Case

After surgery on her left foot, Sydnor returned to her position as a public health nurse at Fairfax County Health Department. Shortly thereafter, Fairfax County terminated Sydnor because her medical restrictions limited her ability to perform the duties of her job. On December 18, 2009, Sydnor filed an administrative charge with the EEOC, alleging that her employer denied her a reasonable accommodation and terminated her on the basis of her disability, in violation of the ADA. In a related questionnaire, Sydnor stated that Fairfax County denied her request to perform light duty work.  She also asserted that her manager did not want Sydnor near patients in the clinic because of her wheelchair. Id. at 3.

In 2010, the EEOC issued Sydnor a right-to-sue notice and she subsequently filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Sydnor claimed that Fairfax County should have offered her a reasonable accommodation to work in the clinic with a wheelchair. The District Court dismissed Sydnor’s case because in her EEOC charge, she made no mention of an accommodation request to work with the assistance of a wheelchair. The District Court reasoned that Sydnor’s omission constituted a failure to exhaust her administrative remedies.

On appeal, Sydnor argued that an employee is required to exhaust claims, not identify the specific accommodations requested and denied. Judge Wilkinson sided with Sydnor and held that “the similarities between Sydnor’s administrative and judicial narratives make clear that the county was afforded ample notice of the allegations against it.” Id. at 8.

Basis Of The Fourth Circuit’s Ruling

Judge Wilkinson’s decision focused on congressional preference for agency resolution. Placing importance on the purposes of notice and conciliation, Judge Wilkinson explained that “sending Sydnor back to square one” because she did not include her request for a wheelchair accommodation in her administrative documents increases the cost and likelihood of litigation. Id. at 10. Refusing to adhere to a strict interpretation of the exhaustion requirements, Judge Wilkinson sought to strike a balance between providing Fairfax County notice of the allegations, on the one hand, and not tripping up Sydnor “over technicalities on the other.” Id. at 6. 

Noting that the decision does not address the merits of Sydnor’s underlying ADA claim, Judge Wilkinson held that Sydnor did exhaust her administrative remedies and, therefore, she could raise the feasibility of the proposed accommodation in her civil suit.

Implications For Employers

Employers beware – proceed with caution in challenging an employee’s administrative charge. The Fourth Circuit made it clear that it will permit employees to advance allegations during litigation that they did not explicitly include in their administrative charge. Thus, the ruling in Sydnor shows that employers need to read an employee’s EEOC charge expansively in asserting its defenses, as courts are apt to do so upon adjudicating the plaintiff’s lawsuit.