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 Pennsylvania Record.
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.
“We 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.