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A Minnesota fast-food franchisee was served up a double scoop of litigation from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in May.

One lawsuit says the franchisee subjected employees to a hostile work environment based on race, sex, sexual orientation, and disability.

A second suit charges the company with denying a long-serving employee with a disability equal pay and pay raises because of the disability.

According to the EEOC’s filings, multiple workers endured harassment at one of the franchisee’s suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul restaurants. In one instance, managers and other employees singled out a gay and African American employee for racial and homophobic insults that included the n-word and f-word, discussed his sex life, and referred to him as the restaurant’s “adopted African child.”

The company also subjected another employee, who also has a disability, to bullying and disability-related slurs, while paying him less than his co-workers without disabilities. The company also exposed female employees, some as young as 14, to sexual harassment that included unwanted sexual touching, jokes, and propositions. Employees reported these conditions to management, but the company failed to reasonably address the harassment or discipline those responsible. The intolerable working conditions forced one employee to quit, the EEOC alleged.

Such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from creating a hostile workplace based on race and sex, including sexual orientation, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination based on disability.

The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota (Civil Action Nos. 0:23-cv-01501 and 0:23-cv-01506) after first attempting to reach pre-litigation settlements through its conciliation process. The EEOC seeks monetary relief for the affected employees, and an order requiring the company to take steps to stop and prevent future workplace harassment and pay disparities.

“Federal law requires employers to take prompt and effective action to stop harassment on the job, said Diane Smason, acting district director of the EEOC’s Chicago District. “Employers cannot simply ignore repeated reports of harassment, allowing this abusive conduct to continue and spread.”

What to do if you receive a charge notice from the EEOC

When the EEOC receives a complaint against a business, it first issues a charge notice. If an employer receives a charge notice (or two) from the EEOC, here is what the agency suggests as next steps:

  • Review the charge notice carefully. The "Notice of a Charge of Discrimination" informs you that a complaint has been filed against your business. It does not necessarily mean that you have violated any laws.
  • Follow the directions on the charge notice. The notice may ask you to provide a response to the charge (a "position statement”). This is your opportunity to explain if you believe the claims in the charge are incorrect or not illegal. (You are not required to hire a lawyer to help you draft a position statement or otherwise respond to a charge of discrimination but may do so at any time in the process.)
  • Consider EEOC mediation to resolve the charge quickly and confidentially, at no cost.
  • Respond to requests for additional information from the EEOC. The EEOC investigator may request documents, interviews, a conference, or an on-site inspection. The information you provide may cause the EEOC to dismiss the charge. (If you need additional time to respond, or if you have questions or concerns about the type or amount of information that the EEOC has requested, contact the investigator assigned to the charge.)
  • Protect employees from retaliation. Retaliation is illegal. Ensure that the employee is not punished for filing the charge and that employees are not punished for participating in an investigation.
  • Retain relevant documents. If you are not sure whether a document is relevant, ask your investigator.
  • Contact the EEOC investigator assigned to your charge if you have questions.

Key to remember: The EEOC showed in the case of a Minnesota fast-food restaurant that the agency is serious about enforcing federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. An employer who receives a charge notice from the EEOC should take it seriously.