Former Campus Director Forced to Surrender Right to File Discrimination Charges, Federal Agency Says
DENVER - CollegeAmerica, a private college based in Salt Lake City, violated federal age discrimination law by including unlawful provisions in a separation agreement with one of its former campus directors, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit it filed on April 30. The EEOC also charged that CollegeAmerica further violated federal law by retaliating against the campus director by suing her seven days after learning she filed a discrimination charge.
According to the EEOC's lawsuit, Debbi D. Potts, the campus director of CollegeAmerica's Cheyenne, Wyo., campus, resigned in July 2012 and signed a separation agreement in September 2012 that conditioned the receipt of separation benefits on, among other things, her promise not to file any complaint or grievance with any government agency or to disparage CollegeAmerica. These provisions would prevent Potts from reporting any alleged employment discrimination to the EEOC or filing a discrimination charge. Seven days after CollegeAmerica learned that Potts filed a charge against CollegeAmerica charging age discrimination and retaliation, the EEOC claims, the school sued Potts in Colorado state court for allegedly violating the severance agreement signed in September 2012. The EEOC asserts that the state court lawsuit was filed in retaliation for Potts filing her charge.
The EEOC also claims that provisions which similarly chill employees' rights to file charges and cooperate with the EEOC exist in CollegeAmerica's form separation and release agreements, routinely used with its employees.
Such alleged conduct violates the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), which prohibits discrimination against workers age 40 and older. The EEOC filed suit after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. The lawsuit, EEOC v. CollegeAmerica Denver, Inc., n/k/a Center For Excellence in Higher Education, Inc., d/b/a CollegeAmerica, Civil Action No. 14-cv-01232-LTB-MJW, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, seeks to recover Potts's attorney's fees and costs incurred in defending the state court lawsuit. The EEOC also seeks injunctive relief, including invalidating Potts's separation agreement; reforming CollegeAmerica's form separation and release agreements to comply with the ADEA; anti-discrimination training; and policies and programs to stop any future violations of the ADEA.
"Rights granted to employees under federal law, like the right to file charges of discrimination and participate in EEOC investigations into alleged discrimination in the workplace, cannot be given up in agreements between private parties," said Mary Jo O'Neill, Regional Attorney for the EEOC's Phoenix District Office, whose jurisdiction includes the EEOC's Denver Field Office. "Otherwise, employers could easily do an end run around the law, employees would not be free to complain about discrimination, and the EEOC would never learn about violations of the law or have an opportunity to enforce it."
EEOC Denver Field Office Director Nancy Sienko said, "The EEOC's mission to eliminate and prevent all forms of employment discrimination, remains vital and necessary but we cannot fix what we don't know about. Employees must feel free to file charges without the risk of punishment."
According to its website, CollegeAmerica is an accredited, private college with six campuses in Colorado, Arizona and Wyoming offering degrees in business, information technology, health care and graphic arts.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. The Phoenix District Office covers Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, and part of New Mexico. Further information is available on the EEOC's website at www.eeoc.gov.