HARRISBURG – The presiding judge in the racial-discrimination lawsuit Waters
v. Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission granted a motion by the PHRC on
Jan. 3 after the state agency had asked the court to exclude a prior determination of reasonable cause by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The PHRC had sought the motion on the grounds that the EEOC determination could unfairly prejudice a jury against the PHRC.
“Depending upon where you are in the country, courts
treat these (EEOC) findings differently in terms of whether they will allow the jury
to learn of them during the trial, and whether such a finding by the EEOC can be
used prior to trial to defeat a summary judgment motion by the employer,” Kevin
O’Connor, attorney at Peckar & Abramson, P.C. in New Jersey, told the
In January 2012, Kathryn L. Waters had complained of
discrimination to the EEOC. She alleged the PHRC discriminated against her
during the hiring process for an executive director position for which she was
applying. As a result of the complaint, the EEOC issued a probable cause
report based on the charge. During its investigation, the agency found reasonable
cause to believe Waters was indeed discriminated against.
The PHRC filed a motion to stop Waters from
discussing or admitting into evidence the EEOC’s determination report. In
addition to its potentially unfair prejudice, the agency argued, it could confuse the issues,
mislead the jury and waste time.
The PHRC alleged it was able to point out major
discrepancies in Waters' accusations.
O’Connor notes that plaintiffs commonly use EEOC
determinations in their cases.
“If they’ve gotten an EEOC reasonable cause
finding, they try to avoid summary judgment using the finding, and if they can
get to trial they try to use that finding before the jury,” O’Connor says.
do not want to see plaintiffs being able to use these findings at a trial. In our estimation, the EEOC is overburdened
with cases. It often issues only a terse finding of probable cause with
no real explanation for its determination.”
O’Connor claims that allowing these findings to be presented to a jury presents
significant problems because it creates legitimacy coming from a government agency.
But he is hopeful that the system is gradually becoming more uniform.
In granting the motion, the court noted that, along with finding discrepancies in Waters' accusation, the EEOC report was not comprehensive
and simply summarized the parties’ positions.
The motion ruling
in this case will set a precedent for upcoming lawsuits.
“The opinion is
helpful because it provides some trial level guidance on the balancing test
used by the trial court in considering whether to allow the jury to learn of
the EEOC’s finding,” O’Connor says.