Fitzgerald v. Secretary, U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs

Citation121 F.3d 203
Decision Date05 September 1997
Docket NumberNo. 96-30731,96-30731
Parties75 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. (BNA) 46, 72 Empl. Prac. Dec. P 45,159 Michael FITZGERALD, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. SECRETARY, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)

David Anthony Szwak, Bodenheimer, Jones, Klotz & Simmons, Shreveport, LA, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Steve L. Frank, U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Division, Washington, DC, John Robert Halliburton, Shreveport, LA, Marleigh D. Dover, U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Division, Appellate Staff, Washington, DC, for Defendant-Appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana.

Before JOLLY, DUHE and EMILIO M. GARZA, Circuit Judges.

DUHE, Circuit Judge:

Michael Fitzgerald appeals the district court's dismissal of his Title VII suit for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. We affirm.

I

Plaintiff-Appellant Michael Fitzgerald, a black male, was employed as a pharmacy technician at a Department of Veterans Affairs (the "VA") medical center in Shreveport, Louisiana. In the spring of 1992, Fitzgerald was allegedly harassed at work by a white female pharmacist. Fitzgerald maintains that the pharmacist uttered racial slurs about him; ordered him to perform job-related tasks that had already been completed; and falsely accused him of putting his hands around her throat, threatening to kill her, and shooting another co-worker's house with a firearm.

Fitzgerald filed a formal complaint of discrimination with the director of the VA medical center in Shreveport. After conducting an investigation into Fitzgerald's claims, the VA, in December 1992, sent Fitzgerald a "certified offer of full relief" pursuant to 29 C.F.R. §§ 1614.107(h), 1614.501. In the offer of full relief, the VA promised to: (1) provide Fitzgerald with "a fair and equitable work environment free from harassment or any other discrimination"; (2) ensure that Fitzgerald would not have to work on the same shift as his harasser; and (3) formally discipline Fitzgerald's harasser. Notably, the offer of full relief did not contain any offer of compensatory damages.

Fitzgerald did not accept the agency's offer of relief, and pursuant to 29 C.F.R. § 1614.107(h), the VA subsequently dismissed his complaint. After the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's ("EEOC") Office of Federal Operations affirmed the VA's dismissal, Fitzgerald filed suit.

The magistrate judge analyzed the VA's settlement offer and concluded that it was, in fact, an offer of full relief because: (1) Fitzgerald received injunctive relief that effectively eliminated the harassment, and (2) compensatory damages were not available to federal employees under Title VII. The magistrate judge thus recommended that Fitzgerald's complaint be dismissed because the rejection of an offer of full relief constitutes a failure to exhaust administrative remedies, which is a necessary prerequisite to filing a civil suit. See Francis v. Brown, 58 F.3d 191, 192-93 (5th Cir.1995); Wrenn v. Secretary, Dep't of Veterans Affairs, 918 F.2d 1073, 1078 (2d Cir.1990). The district court agreed, and dismissed the suit. In an unpublished opinion, however, we reversed the judgment of the district court because compensatory damages are generally available to Title VII claimants for conduct occurring after the effective date of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, as is the case here. See Fitzgerald v. Brown, 58 F.3d 636 (5th Cir.1995) (table) (citing Landgraf v. USI Film Prods., 511 U.S. 244, 247-49, 114 S.Ct. 1483, 1488, 128 L.Ed.2d 229 (1994)).

On remand, the district court again dismissed the suit. The court reasoned that even though compensatory damages may be available to Title VII claimants during the administrative process, Fitzgerald never asked for such damages during the administrative stage of his case. Because it found that Fitzgerald never petitioned the VA or the EEOC for compensatory damages, the court again concluded that the VA's offer fully responded to Fitzgerald's claims and was thus an offer of full relief. It therefore held that Fitzgerald's rejection of an offer of full relief constituted failure to exhaust his administrative remedies. See Francis, 58 F.3d at 193; Wrenn, 918 F.2d at 1078. Fitzgerald appeals.

II
A

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in federal and private employment. Title VII grants an aggrieved federal employee the right to file suit in federal district court, see 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c), but before bringing suit, an employee must exhaust his administrative remedies against his federal employer. See Francis, 58 F.3d at 192; Brown v. General Servs. Admin., 425 U.S. 820, 832-33, 96 S.Ct. 1961, 1967-68, 48 L.Ed.2d 402 (1976). If a federal employee fails to exhaust his administrative remedies, the district court cannot adjudicate the employee's Title VII claim. See Porter v. Adams, 639 F.2d 273, 276 (5th Cir.1981) (noting that exhaustion is "an absolute prerequisite" to suit under § 2000e-16); Edwards v. Department of the Army, 708 F.2d 1344, 1346 (8th Cir.1983).

Under the purview of Title VII, the EEOC has promulgated regulations designed to resolve claims of discrimination at the administrative level; these regulations set forth procedures by which federal employees must pursue charges of discrimination. Federal employees claiming illegal discrimination need first consult with an EEO counselor within the employing agency. See 29 C.F.R. § 1614.105(a). If the EEO counselor is unable to resolve the matter informally, the counselor notifies the employee of his right to file a formal administrative complaint with the employing agency. See id. § 1614.105(d). After investigating the complaint, the employing agency may attempt to settle the matter by making an offer of "full relief" to the complainant. See id. §§ 1614.107(h), 1614.501. Full relief may include, "but need not be limited to," nondiscriminatory placement with back pay and interest, the elimination of any discriminatory practices, cancellation of unwarranted personnel action, and full opportunity to participate in the employee benefit previously denied. See id. § 1614.501(a), (c).

If the complaining employee refuses to accept an offer that has been certified as an offer of "full relief" by the EEOC, the employing agency must dismiss the employee's complaint. See id. § 1614.107(h). The employee may then seek EEOC review of the dismissal, see id. § 1614.401, and may also bring suit in federal district court. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c); 29 C.F.R. §§ 1614.408. If, upon de novo review, the district court also concludes that the agency's offer constitutes full relief, then the court must dismiss the complaint for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. See Francis, 58 F.3d at 193 & n. 1 ("Therefore, we hold that a federal employee fails to exhaust his administrative remedies when he rejects a settlement offer for full relief on the specific claims he asserts.").

B

On appeal, Fitzgerald contends that the VA's settlement proposal was not an offer of full relief because it did not offer him compensatory damages for emotional injuries that allegedly led to his hospitalization. Although Fitzgerald recognizes that he never specifically asked the VA or the EEOC for compensatory damages, he argues that Title VII claimants can obtain compensatory damages for emotional injuries only in actions brought in federal district court, not in administrative proceedings. He therefore maintains that he cannot be faulted for failing to ask the VA for compensatory damages because it is beyond the power of the VA to offer such. Cf. Marsh v. Jones, 53 F.3d 707, 710 (5th Cir.1995) (holding that state prisoner seeking only monetary damages in § 1983 suit need not exhaust administrative remedies pursuant to § 1997e if such remedies do not provide for the award of monetary relief). Fitzgerald also contends that it would be fundamentally unfair to require employees, who are often unassisted by counsel during the administrative process, to bear the burden of specifically pleading for damages. We find neither contention persuasive.

Although no federal circuit court has addressed the issue, we hold that administrative agencies may offer compensatory damages for emotional injury to federal employees pursuing a Title VII claim. A textual analysis of Title VII supports our view. Title 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(a)(2) provides that a party may recover compensatory damages against an employer in an "action" brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-5 or 2000e-16. See 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(a)(2). Nowhere does Title VII define whether the term "action" refers to a district court suit, an administrative proceeding, or both. Regardless, the text of Title VII's remedial provisions demonstrates that compensatory damages are available in administrative proceedings. First, § 2000e-16(a) is a broad anti-discrimination provision prohibiting discrimination in federal employment. See id. § 2000e-16(a). Section 2000e-16(b) grants the EEOC wide-ranging authority to enforce the anti-discrimination provisions of subsection (a) through "appropriate remedies, including reinstatement or hiring of employees with or without back pay." See id. § 2000e-16(b). That subsection also directs the EEOC to "effectuate the policies of this section, and ... issue such rules, regulations, orders and instructions as it deems necessary and appropriate to carry out its responsibilities under this section." Id. We think that this mandate, as described in § 2000e-16(b), is sufficiently broad to allow the EEOC to offer--or to certify or approve an administrative agency's offer of full relief that includes compensatory damages for emotional injuries. In addition to specifically authorizing back pay, which is a form of compensatory damages, the statute...

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