Mike McGinn, Mayor
Julie Nelson, Director
810 Third Avenue, Suite 750, Seattle WA 98104-1627
What Every Business Owner Should Know
Case Process - an Overview
1. We send you a Notification of Charge & request for Information
2. You respond in writing within 20 days (10 days for housing cases)
3. The charging party responds
4. We investigate
5. We review all information
6. We issue a finding "reasonable cause" - or - "no reasonable cause"
Results of the Investigation
No reasonable cause
To download the brochure How To Respond to a Complaint click here.[Return to Top of Page]
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If you're a person of color and operate your own business, you may believe that you're less likely to be investigated or sued for civil rights discrimination. If you believe this, you are probably wrong. Don't take any chances.
There are a number of types of discrimination. In legalese, these are referred to as "bases". Legal bases for discrimination include race, religion, gender, national origin, disability, and age, among others. Within King County and the city of Seattle, another basis, sexual orientation, encompasses discrimination allegations including those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or even "perceived" to be gay. These potential plaintiffs can include employees, customers, and tenants, to name a few.
Essentially, there are a broad number of categories under which potential claims can be made. It is important, therefore, to understand the basics of civil rights laws and how to defend oneself from inadvertently committing potential violations. It is also imperative to learn how to defend oneself against discrimination allegations.
Under the law, a potential civil rights violation springs from the plaintiff. In other words, it doesn't matter who the defendant is--- whether he or she is Black, White, male, female, gay, heterosexual, or so forth. When someone makes an allegation of a civil rights violation, the law is primarily concerned with that person's statements. So long as he or she provides enough initial information to a court or civil rights agency, a lawsuit or investigation may begin. For instance, in a lawsuit, the plaintiff must allege, at a minimum, sufficient and particular information that could result in a ruling in his or her favor.
For a civil rights agency (i.e., EEOC, HUD, Seattle Office for Civil Rights) to begin investigating an allegation of a civil rights violation, the standard is not quite as onerous. In both instances, the plaintiff/Charging Party initiates the lawsuit or civil rights investigation. It is only after this step occurs that the defendant (usually "Respondent" in civil rights agency lingo) is able to assert defenses (i.e., "no discrimination occurred"; "the incident never happened", etc.). However, whether a lawsuit is filed or a civil rights investigation is commenced, there is one certain result: it will likely cost the defendant time and money to defend against the charge.
Unfortunately for those who have had an action initiated against them, defending it can be a serious matter. Even for those who are confident enough to defend themselves without an attorney's expertise, there is still a loss of valuable time and productivity in order to prepare an adequate response to the investigation or lawsuit. While most civil rights agencies will be happy to answer general questions for you regarding your legal rights, you may find it useful to review the following steps you can take to help prepare a potential defense. These steps are even more useful if you heed them now--- before a potential lawsuit or investigation takes place.
1. In an employment or housing situation, the employee's personnel file or the tenant's records are essential. Let's say, for example, a former employee of yours is Black, and alleges that she was terminated from employment because of her race, whereas her non-Black co-workers were not terminated. The former employee alleges that fired her because you don't like African-Americans. You know that you terminated her employment because she was always late to work, made many mistakes, and was unable to improve her work performance even after many attempts by management to help her succeed. However, you need to convince the Court or the civil rights agency investigating the matter that your defense is valid, and not a pretext for discrimination. "Pretext" in employment matters refers to a deceptive basis for making an employment decision when there was really an ulterior motive involved.
In order to create a strong defense, you will want to retain all documents and other evidence in that employee's personnel file. Review them to see whether these show legitimate defenses for your actions in termination her employment. For instance, if she was fired because of poor performance, excessive absences, theft, or other violations of a clearly stated employment policy, you will want to make these documents available for your defense. As a practical matter, keep daily, weekly, or monthly attendance charts for all employees, as well as any reprimands (written, as well as a summary of verbal reprimands) given to employees. Please bear in mind that if you only keep files on some employees and not others, you are treading dangerous ground in the legal arena. This cannot be stressed enough: always, always, always treat all employees equally when dealing with discipline, attendance, work performance, and related matters.
2. A video is critical for situations wherein an allegation of customer mistreatment is alleged. For instance, if an Asian customer alleged that she was ignored while White customers were assisted, look at the store videos. Were any other Asian customers assisted? How long was the customer waiting there? Was the department full? Was the customer waiting somewhere that was not easily seen by employees? These are all questions that may be answered by the video, and may help defend against accusations of discrimination. This is especially true if the video shows that other Asian customers were being assisted, or that this person was only there for a few moments, or was not waiting in line, or was standing in a spot that was not visible to store employees. (If there has been an accusation of employee theft, a video capturing or disproving this would be critical, as well.)
Safeguard the video by placing it in a safety deposit box at your bank. Keep a careful record of what you did with the video, from the moment you took it out of the VCR, to the time you leave it in the safety deposit box. Record dates and times. It is also essential to have a witness or two with you to verify your actions. This will help minimize potential tampering issues later. The law refers to this as the "chain of custody". Lawsuits can be won or lost based on the question whether the evidence was possibly tampered with. In some degree, this occurred in the O.J. Simpson case. As you may recall, the defense called into question the validity of the blood samples taken, and whether they were properly taken from the scene, or taken from Mr. Simpson later.
3. Retain all timesheets, receipts, and other miscellaneous documents. This is especially critical when a former employee or tenant files a lawsuit or complaint years after an incident occurred. (Depending on various factors, a discrimination lawsuit can generally be filed up to three years after the incident alleged. Civil rights agencies usually cannot investigate matters that occurred more than 6-12 months before.)
If you are forced to defend a lawsuit months or years after the alleged incident occurred, you will be grateful to have records to refresh your memory of various situations, as well as to potentially assist in your defense. In an employment situation, keep all personnel records, including timesheets. This is especially critical if your employees report their own hours, such as with a time clock, or if you operate on the "honor" system. These timesheets will likely be helpful, either in disproving an employee's claim of number of hours worked, or even in showing that the employee falsified the number of hours worked. Similarly, property managers should retain copies of all documentation given to tenants or the originals of all documents received from tenants. These can include repair requests, rental payments, complaints, and more. Also, document responses you or your employees made to any repair requests or complaints by tenants.
4. Finally, keep records of all training provided to your employees. Whether it's an expensive training seminar outside the office, or basic in-house training, you will want to retain documentation of all training provided. This is particularly important, for example, if a customer alleges that an employee of yours discriminated against him. While diversity training in and of itself won't be a bulletproof defense, it can be a good complement to the other evidence you present. Keep in mind that, as an employer, you are potentially liable for any torts (non-criminal legal wrongs) your employees commit while they are on the job. As with most legal wrongs, there are a number of defenses the employer can raise if charged with liability for an employee's actions. However, it is better to avoid such a situation altogether.
In conclusion, keeping careful records can seem overwhelming at times. However, you will be much happier for having done so if a charge or lawsuit is ever filed against you or your business.[Return to Top of Page]