Plaintiff Carolyn Sydnor, a public health nurse at the Fairfax County Health department, underwent foot surgery in January 2009 and returned to work in March, requesting accommodations. Her request was denied and on November 23, 2009 she was fired. Sydnor filed an administrative charge with the EEOC on December 23, 2009, in which she alleged that the County discriminated against her based on her disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). In her charge, Sydnor wrote that she had requested and was denied a reasonable accommodation from her manager, but she did not describe the requested accommodation. Along with the charge, Sydnor submitted an EEOC intake questionnaire, in which she cited her disability as “limited walking ability; cannot lift more than 20 lb.; must use electric wheelchair if moving for any length of time; limited writing ability.” She also asked to be assigned as Nurse of the Day and to be given lighter duty work in the clinic, to which her manager responded that she did not want Sydnor around patients because of her wheelchair. The EEOC issued Sydnor a right to sue letter on August 10, 2010.
On August 20, 2010 Sydnor filed a complaint against Fairfax County in federal court. The County filed a motion seeking to exclude evidence that Sydnor had requested to work in the clinic in her wheelchair because she did not specifically list this as a requested accommodation in her EEOC charge. Instead Sydnor wrote that she requested light duty. She also did not state in her charge that she would have been able to perform the essential functions of her job (a clinic nurse) in a wheelchair. The district court dismissed the case finding that Sydnor had not exhausted her administrative remedies by failing to list working in her wheelchair as an accommodation in her charge. Sydnor appealed.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requires that a plaintiff exhaust administrative remedies by filing an EEOC administrative charge before filing a lawsuit in federal court. This requirement gives an employer notice of the alleged violations and an opportunity to address them before litigation. The requirement also allows the EEOC to resolve employment discrimination disputes with conciliation, as intended by Congress, which is faster and less costly than litigation. These goals would not be served if plaintiffs were permitted to raise issues in litigation that were not present in their EEOC claims.
The standard for determining whether the complaint involved in an ADA suit, for which the EEOC had issued a right to sue letter, was properly exhausted, is whether the plaintiff’s administrative and judicial claims are reasonably related such as to have allowed the EEOC to conduct a “reasonable administrative investigation”. The Court rejected the Fairfax County’s argument that Sydnor’ s requested accommodation—full duty with the use of her wheelchair—was fundamentally different than that listed in her EEOC questionnaire—light duty work. A reasonable investigation of a failure to accommodate charge would involve Sydnor’s medical restriction and her employer’s response to it, including her need for a wheelchair in order to perform her job. Additionally, Sydnor stated in her EEOC questionnaire that she needed to use a wheelchair and that her supervisor didn’t want her around patients while she was using her wheelchair.
The Court concluded that the EEOC documents were similar enough to the statements in the lawsuit to satisfy the exhaustion requirement. They involved the same place of work, the same actor (i.e., Sydnor’s manager), and the same type of discrimination—that she had been discriminated against based on her disability because she was denied a reasonable accommodation.
The Court ruled that Sydnor had exhausted her administrative remedies; the Court reversed the court’s decision and remanded the case.
This case clarifies the standard for exhaustion of administrative remedies after a plaintiff has received a right to sue letter in the Fourth Circuit. The Court clarifies that the requirement is not intended to bar plaintiffs from bringing cases as long as the information provided in the EEOC charge and court complaint are reasonably related and no new issues are raised. The Court points out that plaintiffs are not experts. Small discrepancies will not bar a lawsuit, as long as the charge provides sufficient information to put the defendant on notice, and to allow the EEOC to conduct an investigation which may allow the dispute to be resolved before litigation.