Before an individual may file a lawsuit under Title VII or the ADEA, he or she is required to file (or cross-file) a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. The charge is legally sufficient only if it describes with particularity the parties and the actions or practices of which the individual is complaining. The scope of a plaintiff’s right to file a federal lawsuit is determined by the contents of that charge; that is, the lawsuit must be based upon the claims described in the charge, or reasonably related to those described in the charge. Typically, a claim submitted to federal court will be dismissed if the EEOC charge alleges one basis of discrimination, and the formal litigation alleges another, unrelated basis.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has allowed a plaintiff to allege “retaliatory discharge” in her federal lawsuit, although her employment was not terminated until after a charge for which she already had received a right-to-sue notice and which, therefore, did not specifically claim her firing as part of the complained-of retaliation. Jones v. Calvert Group Ltd., 4th Cir., No. 07-1680, 1/05/09.

Linda Jones is an African-American female who filed a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations in 2003, alleging that she had been denied a promotion on the basis of her race, sex, and age. That complaint was resolved in 2004 by written agreement, under which the company agreed to provide certain training and assistance to Jones to enable her to qualify for promotions ion the future.

Immediately after that resolution, Jones received a negative performance evaluation – her first ever. She then filed another charge of discrimination. In the second charge, Jones alleged that in retaliation for her first charge, she was denied mentoring opportunities and that her performance was unduly scrutinized, resulting in an undeserved negative evaluation. Jones received a right-to-sue letter for the second charge on August 6, 2006. Her employment was terminated on October 19, 2006.

On November 3, 2006, Jones filed a lawsuit alleging that she was discriminated against because of her race, sex, and age, and that she was terminated in retaliation for engaging in activity protected by Title VII and the ADEA. The company argued that Jones had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies, since her second charge had not set forth specific claims of discrimination, and that her retaliatory discharge was not specifically mentioned in the charge. The lower court granted summary judgment against Jones on all of her claims. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit agreed that Jones failed to specifically include her claims of discrimination in her second charge and, therefore, failed to exhaust her administrative remedies under Title VII and the ADEA. In addition, however, the Fourth Circuit remanded the retaliation claim back to the lower court for further proceedings on that claim.

The Fourth Circuit’s decision was based on the position of a number of other courts that have addressed this issue, and which have held that a plaintiff may raise the retaliation claim for the first time in federal court if that claim is “like or related to allegations contained in the [prior, timely] charge.” Jones’ second charge alleged a pattern of conduct, including denial of mentoring opportunities, and actions that resulted in her first-ever negative performance review. She specifically alleged that she was being continually “subjected to differential treatment” in retaliation for her first charge. In light of Jones’ allegation that retaliatory conduct was ongoing, the court held that her termination was “merely the predictable culmination of [the employer’s] alleged retaliatory conduct.” Therefore, Jones’ federal court claim of retaliatory discharge was “reasonably related” to the allegations set forth in her second charge, and should be allowed to go forward in the federal court action.

Employers must recognize that discrimination and retaliation are two separate legal claims and that – as in this case – an employee who is unable to support a claim of discrimination, either substantively or procedurally, may still be able to sufficiently support a claim of retaliation. Supervisors and managers must be understand the type of activity that is protected under federal and state anti-discrimination laws, and must be trained to work cooperatively with employees who have exercised their rights to engage in such activity.