Supreme Court Clarifies EEOC Conciliation Process
On April 29, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that courts have the authority to review whether the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has fulfilled its statutory obligation to pursue pre-suit conciliation. The Supreme Court’s decision resolves a split that existed between the circuit courts as to whether courts had the requisite authority to review the adequacy of the EEOC’s conciliation efforts. Yesterday’s decision addresses the issue of how far a judge may delve into whether the EEOC made a “good faith” attempt at conciliation. The previously existing split among the circuit courts resulted in some courts requiring only a minimum level of “good faith,” while other courts required a significant showing that meaningful efforts were pursued. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that the EEOC attempt to negotiate a settlement between an employer and the allegedly aggrieved employee prior to suing for judicial remedy.
The unanimous Supreme Court decision vacated a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which held that the EEOC’s statutory conciliation obligation was unreviewable. The subject case, Mach Mining, LLC v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was brought as the result of an EEOC complaint filed by a woman who claimed that Mach Mining denied the claimant employment as a coal miner based upon her sex. After the EEOC found that there was reasonable cause to believe that Mach Mining did, in fact, discriminate against the claimant based upon sex, the EEOC invited the applicant and Mach Mining to participate in “informal methods” of dispute resolution, and told both parties that an EEOC representative would “contact [them] to begin the conciliation process.” A year later, Mach Mining received a letter from the EEOC stating that the conciliation efforts “have been unsuccessful” and therefore any further attempts to resolve the dispute would be “futile.” Thereafter, the EEOC filed a lawsuit in federal district court alleging discrimination based upon Mach Mining’s failure to hire the female applicant.
The EEOC complaint alleged that the EEOC fulfilled its obligation to conciliate. Mach Mining countered that the EEOC had failed to conciliate in “good faith” prior to initiating litigation. The EEOC moved for summary judgment on the issue of conciliation, arguing that its conciliation efforts were beyond the scope of judicial review. Mach Mining argued that the court had the authority to review the “reasonable[ness]” of the EEOC’s efforts to resolve the matter. The district court agreed with Mach Mining that the district court should determine whether the EEOC made a reasonable effort to conciliate. The district court authorized an immediate appeal of its ruling on that issue upon request by the EEOC. The Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s decision, and ruled that “the statutory directive to attempt conciliation” is “ not subject to judicial review.”
The EEOC argued to the Supreme Court that Title VII provides the EEOC with significant leeway in how conciliation is to be performed, and when conciliation has stalled such that it is futile. Additionally, the EEOC maintained that Congress never articulated any “judicially manageable” criteria upon which conciliation efforts could be reviewed. The Supreme Court disagreed, and in a unanimous decision authored by Justice Elena Kagan, held that “the statute provides certain concrete standards pertaining to what the endeavor must entail.” Yesterday’s decision clarifies the EEOC’s obligations requiring that in order to meet the statutory prerequisite, the EEOC “must tell the employer about the claim—essentially, what practice has harmed which person or class — and must provide the employer with an opportunity to discuss the matter in an effort to achieve voluntary compliance.” However, the Supreme Court also held that the judicial review of the conciliation process is warranted only on a limited basis. We hold that a court may review whether the EEOC satisfied its statutory obligation to attempt conciliation before filing suit. But we find that the scope of that review is narrow, thus recognizing the EEOC’s extensive discretion to determine the kind and amount of communication with an employer appropriate in any given case.”
In recent years, employers have raised significant concerns surrounding the EEOC’s tactics nationwide. These concerns include complaints that the EEOC has been overly aggressive, leading to litigation often based upon specious allegations and dubious theories of liability, inevitably resulting in costly fees and besmirched reputations. Yesterday’s decision by the Supreme Court strikes a balance between the broad discretion the EEOC enjoys based upon Title VII, and an employer’s rights to understand the allegations at issue and to be allowed the opportunity to resolve these allegations prior to being mired in costly litigation.
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