Action Patterns: Third Party Complaints

By Staff

Vol. 1, No. 9, 1979, pp. 21

When she and her friend made up their minds to challenge their South Georgia employer's separate seniority lines, the first thing they did was to ask their union shop steward for help. They were told to go complain to the OEO in Savannah. But they were not fooled. They filled a proper job discrimination complaint with the EEOC. That was eight years ago, and it was only beginning.

In the ensuing years they faced obstacle after obstacle; misadvice; inaction by the EEOC; irresponsible action by unscrupulous attourneys; a long search for a responsible attorney who was willing to accept a job discrimination case; the astronomical cost of litigation; resistance from others all the way.

But hardest to take was the hostility and harrassment on the job, from their employer, their coworkers, and their fellow union members alinke. She took it for five years, then quit, unable to endure. Her friend is still working for the same company. "It was unreal," said the friend. "You can't afford to say anything that will give them an excuse to fire you, so I just smiled and kept on going. For eight years it was just like I was in a bad dream."

This year, their litigation finally brought results: a financial settlement and an end to the dual seniority lines. Such happy endings may or may not result when Blacks and women exercize their lawful right to seek redress of race and sex discrmination. But the obstacles aren't uncommon, and the hostility and harassment the two women faced on the job are inevitable, the side effects of entering a job discrimination complaint. Knowing this, many victims of discrimination forego their rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and other equal employment opportunity laws.

There is, however, a complaint mechanism that community organizations can use to lessen the burden on job discrimination victims: the "Third Party" complaint. By law, organizations, persons, or agencies can file a complaint or take action "on behalf" of individuals or classes who have suffered job discrimination because of their race or sex. When Third Party Complaints are entered, the name of the true victim of job discrimination need not be revealed. Protection is thus provided for individuals who are unwilling to come forward publicly because of a fear that a public charge would result in the loss of their job, on-job harrassment, or some other form of reprisal.

Both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Executive Order 11246 permit race and sex discrimination complaints to be brought by Third Parties. And when such a complaint has been filed but satisfactory action by the federal enforcement agency is not forthcoming within a reasonable time, Third Parties-- just as aggrieved parties-- may take legal action. They may enter a civil suit against the employer, employment agency, or union that is charged with illegal discrimination.

Third Party Complaints and court suits may be filed on behalf of individuals or they may be class actions. There is one exception: when the federal government is the employer, neither Third Party Complaints nor Third Party suits may be brought as class actions.

When community organizations, agencies, or individuals enter such surrogate complaiints, the procedures are almost identical to procedures that must be followed by aggrieved parties. A complaint must first be filed. If it is resolved by the enforcement agency in the way that is unsatisfactory to the complaint, or left unresolved by the enfocement agency durin a prescribed period of time, a court suit can then be filed by the complaint.

A community group, agency, or individual needs only the permission of a victim of employment discrimination in order to file a Third Party complaint. The name of the invdividual on whose behalf it has been filed does not have to be invluded in the complaint; however, the aggrieved person's name must be given, along with their address and telephone number, to the enforcement agency. During its investigation the enforcement agency will verifythat the named individual did in fact request that a charge be filed on his or her behalf. It should be clearly indicated that the complaint is a Third Party Complaint. If confidentiality for the aggrieved party is desired, it should be requested, in writing, in the complaint. A request for confidentiality will be honored by the enforcement agency. From the time the complaint has been filed until the time of its resolution, it is the responsibility of the aggrieved party to keep this enforcement agency aprised of his or her current address. A Third Party may not withdraw a charge that has been filed with the EEOC; only the aggrieved party may do so.

Several private civil rights organizations inthe Southern region routinely accepted and filed Third Party complaints during recent years. The NAACP is a notable example. In addition, when financial resources have permitted, that organization has brought Third Party court actions if they were appropriate. The role of community organizations in handling surrogate actions is important to the fight for equal job opportunity for Blacks and women, for, as in the South Georgia example above, the economic and psychological burden on aggrieved individuals who challenge job discrimination is almost unbearable. Activist organizations can make important contributions to the fight against job discrimination by soliciting complaints and bringing them to resolution, as Third Parties.