Balancing of Value of EEOC Determination Permitted Prior to Evidentiary Use in Subsequent Litigation

The Employment and Labor Law Alert
(Kelly Ann Bird)
November 1, 2002

As a prerequisite to the filing of complaints alleging discrimination in employment claims under federal law, would-be plaintiffs must file charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), which will at some point issue a Letter of Determination (finding no cause or probable cause for the charge). In Coleman v. Home Depot, Inc., 2002 WL 31255736, ______ F.3d _______ (3d Cir. 2002), the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reviewed the admissibility of these Letters of Determination as they are proffered in civil litigation. Although Letters of Determination are generally admissible as exceptions to the hearsay rule, as they are "factual findings resulting from an investigation made pursuant to authority granted by law," they may be challenged as either untrustworthy or not probative, and therefore a court may consider whether to admit or deny them as evidence.

In Coleman, Plaintiff alleges that defendant Home Depot subjected her to race, gender and age discrimination by refusing to give her a sales position and by subsequently discharging her. The EEOC issued a Letter of Determination in which it concluded that "reasonable cause existed to believe that Home Depot had discriminated against Coleman because of her sex and race in connection with her hiring, request for transfer, and discharge." The EEOC found no facts existed in support of Coleman's age discrimination claim.

Coleman filed a civil action alleging race and gender discrimination. Prior to trial, Home Depot moved to exclude the Letter of Determination from evidence, asserting that it had low probative value, which was outweighed by its prejudicial effect. After considering all the evidence presented by Plaintiff in her case in chief, the District Court agreed and excluded the Letter of Determination. After a jury verdict in favor of Home Depot, Plaintiff appealed, asserting that the District Court's exclusion of the EEOC Letter of Determination from evidence constituted an abuse of discretion. The Third Circuit reviewed the exclusion of the Letter of Determination.

Noting that EEOC determinations are admissible as agency factual findings, the Third Circuit then identified multiple bases for their exclusion. First, the Court noted, if there is a lack of trustworthiness in either the sources of information or other circumstances, the factual findings may be excluded. Next, the Court noted that, even if trustworthy, and relevant, agency factual findings may be excluded "if the probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence." This cost-benefit analysis considers whether the problems caused by the proposed evidence will outweigh the value of the evidence.

Here, where the evidence presented by Coleman at trial differed from the EEOC findings (in particular, the EEOC found that Coleman was "highly experienced" in sales, but her own trial testimony revealed the opposite), the Third Circuit agreed that the probative value of the Letter of Determination was low. Additionally, the Third Circuit found that where Home Depot illustrated that the value of the Letter of Determination was "'substantially outweighed' by the problems created by its introduction," the Court properly excluded the Letter of Determination from evidence in the civil trial. The District Court had found that the probative value of the EEOC Letter of Determination was low and outweighed by confusion and unfair prejudice. In contrast, the Third Circuit found that the factors of undue delay and waste of time warranted exclusion of the Letter. Specifically, the Third Circuit found that the EEOC's conclusion regarding other Home Depot employees would have taken a lot of testimony and evidence to unravel, and so the probative value of the Letter of Determination was outweighed by the problems it would create.

Although each determination must be made on a case by case basis, the Coleman decision opens a door for employers to exclude potentially troublesome evidence in the form of EEOC Letters of Determination.