The missions of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and New York State Division of Human Rights (State Division) are very similar: both are responsible for enforcing laws that make it illegal to discriminate against employees in New York that are members certain protected classes and/or retaliate against employees that complain of discrimination. But there are a number of important differences that are important to keep in mind if you are considering filing a complaint with either agency.
Title VII vs. the New York State Human Rights Law
We have touched on this issue briefly before, but there are a number of differences between the federal and state laws that prohibit discrimination in the workplace. Federal law – in this case, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, along with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act – prohibits discrimination on the following grounds: race, color, religion, sex/gender, national origin, age and disability. The New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) prohibits discrimination on these grounds along with the following additional grounds: sexual orientation, marital status, domestic violence victim status, arrest or conviction record, and predisposing genetic characteristics. Thus, the NYSHRL is broader than federal law and, if you are discriminated against because you fall into one of those categories that are only protected by the NYSHRL, your only options are to file a complaint with the State Division or file a complaint in state court.
There is also an important difference in the damages that are available under federal and state law. While federal law permits an individual that proves that they were subjected to discrimination to recover economic damages (including both back pay, front pay and any other monetary losses), compensatory damages (e.g. emotional distress), punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees, the NYSHRL is limited to economic damages and compensatory damages (as well as civil penalties that the State Division can order, but those are paid to the State Division and not the individual). This means that the State Division cannot award you punitive damages or attorneys’ fees. (However, this comes with the caveat that at least one federal court has permitted a plaintiff that prevailed at the State Division to file a claim to recover their attorneys’ fees under federal law).
The EEOC vs. the State Division
The biggest difference between the EEOC and the State Division (other than the above-outlined differences between federal and state law) is that the State Division is able to – and actually does – make an effort to investigate and resolve complaints that are filed with it. Complaints filed with the EEOC tend to go years before they are actually investigated. As a result, the EEOC has a huge backlog of cases which has been well reported – see here, here and here. It also hasn’t helped that the EEOC’s Manhattan office was flooded in July 2012 when a pipe burst and then again by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 which resulted in the loss of many files, among other problems. Thus, it is not uncommon for cases to languish at the EEOC and see months or even years pass with little or no activity.
Conversely, the State Division has been doing a much better job of processing and investigating claims that are filed with it. The State Division has 11 offices throughout New York State and has an unofficial mandate from the Governor to issue a preliminary decision within 180 days of a complaint being filed. Usually this preliminary decision is based on a review of the complaint, the answer submitted by the employer and anything generated from the State Division’s investigation – which is typically limited to a fact-finding conference where the investigator asks questions of the complainant and any witnesses that the employer brings. In this preliminary decision, the State Division will determine whether they have found probable cause that discrimination has occurred and, if so, will schedule a hearing for a few months later. While a year could pass before anything happens with an EEOC charge, complaints filed with the State Division tend to be resolved or at least scheduled for a hearing within a year. What typically tends to happen though is that an employee that receives a Probable Cause Determination from the State Division, rather than proceed to a hearing before the State Division, will then file a complaint in federal court (and include claims under federal law to obtain punitive damages and attorneys fees) and try to use the Probable Cause Determination as evidence to support their claim. The main drawback to filing your complaint with the State Division, however, is that if the State Division finds that there is no evidence of discrimination (i.e., a No Probable Cause Determination), you will have very limited options in appealing that decision and it will be very difficult (but not impossible) to proceed with a claim.
As the above demonstrates, there are number of legal and practical differences between filing a complaint with the EEOC and the State Division. Thus, before you file a complaint with either the EEOC or the State Division, you should sit down with an attorney and discuss the pros and cons of both to each potential course of action. If you would like to be connected with an attorney, please fill out the form below: