In 2011, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against an Illinois-based mining company that, despite numerous highly-qualified applicants, hadn’t hired a single female miner since it opened operations. The company offered an unusual defense. The lawsuit should be thrown out, it said, because the EEOC’s efforts to settle the complaint through its pre-trial conciliation process had been inadequate.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 lays out the basic responsibilities of the EEOC, and it does require the agency “endeavor to eliminate . . . alleged unlawful employment practice[s] by informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion.” If the EEOC’s attempts to do so aren’t very effective, should the courts order the agency to go back and try harder before it can sue?
The question was recently brought before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, which includes Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. The issue was considered important enough that all 14 judges on the court were asked to endorse the ruling. The answer was no. Whatever its adequacy, any effort by the EEOC to resolve discrimination complaints before filing suit is sufficient.
As the court pointed out, Title VII specifically authorizes the agency to file when it “has been unable to secure from the respondent a conciliation agreement acceptable to the Commission.”
Furthermore, the statute provided courts with no guidelines for determining whether the EEOC’s conciliation efforts were sufficient in a particular case or, indeed, whether its process is adequate in general. Nor would courts have any interest in doing so, the 7th Circuit noted, and “we are not tempted to send district courts down such a dimly lighted path.”
The most important point is that allowing employers to evade or delay discrimination lawsuits for this reason would undermine the very purpose of the law, which is to stop discrimination. Allowing employers to challenge the EEOC’s conciliation efforts would merely serve to increase the cost and burden of the litigation process and to distract all parties from the real issues.
A decision by the 7th Circuit doesn’t technically apply here in Minnesota, which is in the 8th.The message to employers facing discrimination complaints is clear, however. Whether through informal negotiations or in a court of law, employers are required to face employees’ workplace discrimination actions head on — not avoid the issue through procedural delays.
Source: EEOC press release, “In Landmark Ruling, Seventh Circuit Holds Employers Cannot Challenge EEOC Conciliation,” Dec. 20, 2013