Advocates weigh in on upcoming Supreme Court, EEOC case

U.S. Supreme Court Building
U.S. Supreme Court Considers EEOC Case

Disability Rights California recently signed onto an amicus brief filed by civil rights groups to the Supreme Court, on behalf of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in a case with major implications for how the agency attempts to settle employment discrimination cases.

Starting in 2008, the EEOC received a number of complaints alleging gender discrimination by Mach Mining, an Illinois-based coal mining company. As is required under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the EEOC, upon investigating the claim and finding “reasonable cause” to support the allegations, engaged in an informal conciliation process. Under the law, these discussions must remain confidential, subject to a punishment of one year in jail or a $1,000 fine for unauthorized disclosures.

These requirements are identical when the EEOC brings actions under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which expressly incorporates Title VII’s enforcement mechanisms.

When the parties failed to reach a settlement, the EEOC, in 2011, filed a lawsuit against the company.

At the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, Mach Mining argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed on the grounds that the EEOC failed to engage in good faith efforts to reach a settlement.

The District Court denied the motion but certified for appeal the question of whether Title VII allows for courts to review the adequacy of the EEOC’s conciliation efforts.

In December 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in favor of the EEOC.

“The language of the statute, lack of a meaningful standard for court to apply, and the overall statutory scheme convince us that an alleged failure to conciliate is not an affirmative defense to the merits of a discrimination claim,” the Court stated.

Mach Mining appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari.

On November 3, Professor Michael Foreman of the Pennsylvania State University Dickinson School of Law wrote an amicus brief in support of the EEOC’s position, which was joined by Disability Rights California, the National Employment Lawyers Association, AARP, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus and Public Counsel.

They argue that Title VII does not allow for any judicial review of the EEOC’s conciliation efforts, and that if the Supreme Court found such authority, it would discourage productive settlement discussions.

“The statute’s guarantee of confidentiality ensures that the EEOC, charging parties, and employers can engage in full and frank settlement negotiations with the goal of achieving voluntary compliance,” the amicus brief states. “Judicial review of conciliation efforts has a chilling effect on settlement because it exposes the substance of sensitive discussions to the district court and, potentially, to the public.”

In addition, the amicus brief argues that courts already have multiple mechanism, such as allowing additional time for discussions, to promote good faith negotiations. Further, they argue that additional judicial review of these talks would disproportionately harm already vulnerable populations.

“Many victims of workplace discrimination are unable to retain private legal counsel, and instead rely on the EEOC to pursue their claims,” the amicus brief states. “Consequently, dismissing a lawsuit based on the pre-suit conciliation will often end the charging parties’ only opportunity to vindicate their rights. This result unfairly punishes the victims of discrimination, who have little say about how the conciliation proceeds.”

Oral arguments are expected to be held in January.

Disability Rights California and Disability Rights Washington, which operates this Galaxy website, are part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and members of the National Disability Rights Network.