More than a few clients have been very excited to receive a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, assuming it means they have a good case. They assume a good lawyer will get them a large recovery. But that is not the case.
What is a Right to Sue Letter from EEOC?
Before proceeding with a discrimination claim involving race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, genetic information, or retaliation, one must file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. After review, if the EEOC finds reasonable cause that an unlawful employment practice has occurred, it may provide a right-to-sue letter. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5.
The EEOC frequently issues right-to-sue letters even where there is no reasonable cause. The receipt of a right-to-sue letter triggers a 90-day period during which a lawsuit must be filed. The fact that a right-to-sue letter is issued has no bearing on a court’s decision on the lawsuit.
A recent case, Anderson v. Emory Healthcare, Inc., No. 21-13358 (11th Cir. Aug. 4, 2022), illustrates that a right-to-sue letter does not necessarily reflect the strength of a case.
Ms. Gutierrez, a Jehovah’s Witness, began working in a nursing position that required her to work a shift on one or more weekend days. Her beliefs, as confirmed by Jehovah’s Witness doctrine, prohibited her from working on Sunday. After accommodating her for a few months, her supervisors began to complain. Ultimately, one of Gutierrez’s supervisors, Ms. Anderson, began meeting with her about her refusal to work on Sundays. Anderson said she would not accommodate Gutierrez’s request to not work any Sundays. Gutierrez made a complaint of harassment and religious discrimination via a hotline for employees. The hospital’s Human Resources Manager directed Anderson to inform Gutierrez that she would not be required to work on Sundays. Anderson attempted to contact Gutierrez but never told her that she wouldn’t have to work on Sundays. Gutierrez resigned citing the hospital’s refusal to accommodate her religious beliefs. Gutierrez filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC claiming religious discrimination. After an investigation (in which Anderson played some part), the EEOC found reasonable cause for religious discrimination. At the request of the EEOC, the hospital agreed to attend a conciliation meeting with Gutierrez. At the meeting, Gutierrez produced recordings she had made of Anderson expressly refusing to accommodate Gutierrez’s religious beliefs. Anderson’s employment was terminated by the hospital.
Anderson filed an EEOC charge claiming that she had been retaliated against by the hospital for participating in the EEOC investigation. The EEOC issued her a right-to-sue letter, and Anderson sued.
The district court dismissed Anderson’s case finding that the hospital gave good reasons for terminating her. Anderson appealed. In Anderson v. Emory Healthcare, Inc., No. 21-13358, at *7-8 (11th Cir. Aug. 4, 2022), the court affirmed the dismissal finding that Anderson had failed to demonstrate a pretext (that the hospital’s reasons for firing her were merely a pretext for its real reason – retaliation). Anderson lost her case notwithstanding her receipt of a right-to-sue letter.
So, a right to sue letter is just that — you now have the right to sue. It doesn’t really mean much more. Seeking good advice from qualified counsel is much more important than a right to sue letter.