2nd Circuit Explains Difference Between “Disparate Treatment” and “Hostile Work Environment” Theories As Relevant To Title VII’s Administrative Exhaustion Requirement

In Farren v. Shaw Environmental, No. 12-1008 (2d Cir. Jan. 31, 2013), the Second Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s case due to a failure to exhaust administrative remedies in the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and New York State Division of Human Rights (“DHR”), as required by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Central to the court’s decision was the critical distinction between the “hostile work environment” and “disparate treatment” theories of sex discrimination cognizable under Title VII.  Since the EEOC and DHR complaints alleged the former, but not the latter, plaintiff’s disparate-treatment claim was properly dismissed.

The general administrative exhaustion rule provides:

“Before an individual may bring a Title VII suit in federal court, the claims forming the basis of such a suit must first be presented in a complaint to the EEOC or the equivalent state agency. … Claims not raised in an EEOC complaint, however, may be brought in federal court if they are ‘reasonably related’ to the claim filed with the agency.”

This standard was not satisfied here:

Farren’s complaint to the DHR and EEOC did allege one variant of sex discrimination—namely, that the sexual harassment he experienced at work was so pervasive as to create a hostile work environment. …

The facts alleged in Farren’s administrative complaint to the DHR and EEOC, however, do not reveal any suggestion of intentionally discriminatory treatment by Shaw’s managers on account of Farren’s sex, and therefore the complaint did not provide those agencies with adequate notice of the disparate-treatment claim. In other words, Farren’s administrative complaint discusses the sexual nature of the alleged workplace threats in the course of making a hostile-work-environment claim, but it does not state or suggest that Shaw’s managers responded to Farren’s claims differently because of his sex. …

The DHR and EEOC therefore reasonably viewed Farren’s complaint as alleging sexual harassment by Farren’s coworker and an insufficient response by Shaw managers—not disparate treatment by Shaw managers because of Farren’s sex. In this context, the two types of sex-discrimination claims are sufficiently distinct, both factually and legally, such that Farren’s failure to raise the disparate-treatment claim in his administrative complaint precludes our consideration of that claim here.  (Emphasis added.)

Farren illustrates that crafting an administrative discrimination charge – despite arguably not having the perceived gravitas of a formal court filing – must be undertaken with great care, or important claims may be lost.

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