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EEOC Botched Hundreds More Cases of Age Bias : Rate of Mishandled Reports 40% Higher Than Earlier Admitted

Times Staff Writer

Hundreds more age discrimination complaints have been botched by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission than the agency previously admitted, according to data obtained by congressional investigators.

Between Oct. 1 and Jan. 31, nearly 350 age bias cases were allowed to languish at the agency without action while the statute of limitations passed for bringing court action against the older workers’ employers, the new statistics say.

The finding brings the number of mishandled cases over a 16-month period to 1,240--nearly 40% more than the roughly 900 foul-ups acknowledged in early January by Clarence Thomas, chairman of the civil rights enforcement agency.

More than 220 cases filed with the agency’s Los Angeles office were botched--a total second among the 23 field offices only to the number mishandled in Philadelphia.

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U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), whose government operations subcommittee obtained the new data from the agency, Monday called the continuing blunders “outrageous” and said Congress needs to consider increasing the agency’s budget or extending the time limit for filing suit in age cases.

Lantos’ subcommittee scheduled a hearing today to question Thomas about the problems. Two other congressional panels and the General Accounting Office are continuing investigations of the agency’s handling of age and other types of employment discrimination cases.

Preventive Measures

The Times reported in January that Thomas had disciplined seven of the agency’s regional administrators and put them all on notice late last year that further mishandling of age bias cases would not be tolerated. Agency officials said Monday that the newly reported foul-ups mainly represent cases that outran legal time limits before Thomas’ ultimatum was issued or in the weeks immediately after.

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James H. Troy, the agency’s operations director, said in an interview that there now appear to be no more cases in the agency’s workload that have passed the two-year legal deadline. “I can believe with a certain degree of surety that no more cases will exceed the statute,” Troy said.

Thomas, in testimony prepared for presentation to Lantos’ subcommittee, said the agency had implemented procedures “to ensure that such mismanagement of charges does not occur in the future.”

Among the steps is a requirement that field offices track the progress of cases and notify complainants of their right to file a civil law suit against their employer 60 days before the statute of limitations expires. Charges accepted within six months before the legal deadline will be given priority for investigation and resolution, an exception to the agency’s first-come, first-served practices.

Under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, workers must file complaints with the commission before they can sue their employers for age bias. After 60 days, they can file suit themselves regardless of the outcome of the agency’s investigation.

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Legislation Pending

As a practical matter, though, most wait for their cases to be processed by the agency. So the 1,240 workers whose cases the commission took no action on before the law’s two-year statute of limitations expired--and others who might have joined class-action suits--have no legal recourse against their employers.

The Senate recently passed a bill that would restore their right to sue, however, and similar legislation is pending in the House. Existing discrimination laws set no time limits for suits alleging race or sex bias.

A spokesman for one older-workers’ group said the burgeoning number of mishandled bias cases raised doubts about the credibility of the commission’s operations.

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The new numbers “confirm the worst fears about the EEOC’s management practices, which is that they may be incapable of coming to grips with how severe the problem is,” said Christopher G. Mackaronis, manager of advocacy programs for the American Assn. of Retired Persons. “If the EEOC were a business investigating these claims, I would suspect they would be perilously close to being bankrupt.”

The large number of cases botched by the commission’s Los Angeles office reflected the huge backlog for all types of discrimination cases in what EEOC officials consider one of the agency’s most understaffed outposts. Judith A. Keeler, district director, said that many of the problems also resulted from workers filing complaints late in the two-year timetable and from the lack of a case-tracking system in the office.

Keeler said local employers can expect the office to be much more aggressive in pursuing evidence of age bias. “This office will be issuing more subpoenas when employers don’t cooperate and otherwise pressing for their cooperation in the course of the investigations,” she said.

In his prepared testimony, Thomas said a nationwide review of the botched cases by the commission found there was no explanation for the largest number, 471. Reasons cited by the agency’s field offices in the other lapsed cases included delays by complainants in filing bias charges, poor case tracking and the complexity of some of the cases.

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