Are you an employer who has just received an employment discrimination complaint from the Chicago Commission on Human Relations? Are you wondering what to expect from the process? It is important to first acknowledge the gravity of your situation. Even if these claims are completely unfounded, you need to properly respond to them to avoid potentially high penalties including punitive damages and attorney’s fees.

First, it is highly recommended that you consult an attorney as soon as you receive the complaint. The administrative process begins when the employee’s complaint is filed. The Commission assigns an Investigative Officer to the case who examines the complaint, conducts interviews regarding the allegations, requests your response to the complaint, and reviews limited documentary evidence regarding the allegations and your defenses. A finding of substantial evidence at this level results in a full hearing process with the Commission, including full discovery and hearing costs, so it is important that you are well represented during this time to best defend against these claims at this level. Cutting these claims off at the knees could help you avoid tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees – not to mention the uncertainty of proceeding to a Hearing.

Second, if the Investigative Officer enters an order finding substantial evidence to begin the hearing process, you will have an opportunity to attend a settlement conference with all parties present. Settlement at this junction should be carefully considered because attorney’s fees increase exponentially after this time, and the Commission has authority to award unrestricted amounts in damages including punitive damages and attorney’s fees to prevailing plaintiffs.

Third, if you cannot reach a settlement, an initial scheduling conference will be held to determine discovery deadlines and hearing dates. The dates scheduled during this conference are rather firm, so be sure to take as much time as the Hearing Officer will allow to account for full discovery.

Fourth, propound your discovery as soon as possible after the initial scheduling conference so that you have time to review all of the available information and to issue any subpoenas for documents that you might need. Again, time is of the essence, so be sure to adhere to your discovery deadlines to that you have ample time to file any motions to compel, collect subpoenaed documents, and ensure that your witnesses can be present.

Fifth, unfortunately, the process does not end immediately following the Hearing. Two briefing periods follow for post hearing briefs and exceptions to any findings of the Hearing Officer. Appeals may then be filed to both the Cook County Circuit Court and the First District Appellate Court. The full process is rather complex and differs from county court rules, so it is important to closely review the Commission’s regulations and retain an attorney to represent you in these matters if it all possible.