SCOTUS Gives Courts Expanded Oversight For EEOC Dispute Resolutions
Late last week, the U.S. Supreme Court gave employers a limited right to seek judicial review of resolution disputes arising out of the Equal Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) informal process. In a unanimous decision by SCOTUS, courts may review whether the EEOC has fulfilled its statutory duty under Title VII to conciliate discriminatory allegations by employees against their employers. Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, religion or natural origin, and sets forth a procedure that must be followed by the EEOC when handling a complaint of employment discrimination. The law requires that when the EEOC finds reasonable cause to believe discrimination has occurred, it must first attempt to eliminate the unlawful practice through “informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion.”
In the case before SCOTUS, a female applicant filed a charge against the defendant employer stating it had refused to hire her based upon her gender. The EEOC had investigated her charge and found reasonable cause to support her charge, as well as that the employer defendant had discriminated against a class of women who had similarly applied for jobs. The EEOC sent defendant and the applicant a letter inviting both to participate in informal conciliation and stated that an EEOC representative would contact both soon. That never happened, and instead another year later the EEOC sent the employer a second letter stating that “such conciliation efforts as are required by law have occurred and have been unsuccessful”, and further that any additional conciliatory efforts would be “futile”. The EEOC proceeded to file suit against the employer in federal court, alleging sexual discrimination in hiring.
The employer argued that the EEOC had not made a good faith effort to conciliate. The EEOC countered that its efforts are not subject to judicial review, and that even if they were, the two letters were sufficient evidence to proceed to litigation.
SCOTUS granted cert when there was a split between the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois (who held for the employer) and the Seventh Circuit (which reversed on the District Court’s decision as to whether or not there existed a judicial right of review over the EEOC’s conciliation processes.)
The Supreme Court determined that while there is a right of review, it is a narrow one and only applies when a court is presented with hard evidence that the EEOC: (1) did not provide the employer with sufficient information about a charge; and (2) did not attempt to engage in a discussion about conciliating the claim. Thus, although the EEOC conciliation process is subject to judicial review, it is reviewable only to determine if the EEOC engaged in the process at all.
The employer’s takeaway from all of this is to firmly document any EEOC involvement in company operations, and while it is beneficial to have access to court review over whether proper notice of alleged discriminatory practices have occurred, the employer should not rely on this alone, as the standard for proving sufficient conciliation is extremely low. In an area where the EEOC has demonstrated a proclivity to engage in an ever-expanding spectrum of employment discrimination cases, this is a limited victory for employers at best.
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