Why Does the EEOC Make Mistakes? Keeping a Fair Perspective

Rick Seymour

Rick Seymour

Over the years, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been routinely criticized by charging parties, plaintiffs’ attorneys, respondents, and attorneys for respondents, as to virtually every aspect of the Commission’s activities including the filing, investigation, and conciliation of charges, and the Commission’s litigation.  While the problems are real and create difficulties for both sides, it is important to keep a fair perspective.

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The courts have added their voices to the criticisms by charging parties and their counsel, with numerous courts coming to the rescue of charging parties by holding that the EEOC’s interim charge-processing steps are not jurisdictional prerequisites to a private suit and echoing the early words of the Fifth Circuit:

“Significantly, under EEOC regulations, a right to demand and receive such a notice accrues sixty days after the charge is filed regardless of any act or omission by the EEOC. Were this regulation not written, we would read it into the Act lest a claimant’s statutory right to sue in federal court become subject to such fortuitous variables as workload, mistakes, or possible lack of diligence of EEOC personnel.”

Beverly v. Lone Star Lead Const. Corp., 437 F.2d 1136, 1140 (5th Cir. 1971) (footnotes omitted). The period for requesting a notice of right to sue was later expanded, of course, to 180 days. 29 C.F.R. § 1628(a).

The courts have also echoed some of the concerns raised by respondents and their counsel, and have sometimes added teeth to the criticisms by sanctioning the EEOC for perceived failures in investigation, conciliation, and litigation. E.g., E.E.O.C. v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc., 2013 WL 3984478, 119 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. (BNA) 739 (N.D.Iowa Aug. 1, 2013) (No. 07-CV-95-LRR), awarding $4,694,442.14 in defendant’s attorneys’ fees and costs against the EEOC for perceived failures of conciliation and for litigation missteps.

Some employers are using the courts’ criticisms in an effort to tie up the Commission’s enforcement efforts in red-tape preliminaries that could require more effort than the litigation they are trying to stave off. The Courts of Appeals are split as to whether respondents have an affirmative defense for the EEOC’s failure to conciliate reasonably, and the issue is now before the U.S. Supreme Court in Mach Mining, LLC, v. E.E.O.C., No. 13-1019 (scheduled for conference on June 19, 2014). Both sides have agreed that the Supreme Court should take the case and resolve this question, and we will shortly find out whether the Court will grant review. The Seventh Circuit had decided that courts could not enquire into the reasonableness of the EEOC’s conciliation efforts. E.E.O.C. v. Mach Mining, LLC, 738 F.3d 171 (7th Cir. 2013). The Commission’s response to the petition for certiorari, however, shows at pp. 3-4 the degree to which allowing such inquiries will stymie the EEOC’s enforcement efforts:

2. In 2008, a woman who had unsuccessfully applied for a mining position with petitioner filed a charge of unlawful employment discrimination with the Commission. . . . She contended that petitioner, which had never hired a woman for a mining position, refused to hire her based on her gender. . . . The Commission investigated the charge, found reasonable cause to believe petitioner had discriminated against a class of women who applied for mining-related jobs, and invited petitioner to conciliate. . . . From late 2010 to late 2011, the Commission attempted conciliation with petitioner, but no agreement was reached. . . .

The Commission then filed this lawsuit, contending that petitioner engaged in a pattern or practice of unlawful employment discrimination and used employment practices that had a disparate impact on female applicants. . . . In its answer, petitioner asserted a failure-to-conciliate affirmative defense, contending that the complaint should be dismissed because the Commission had failed to expend sufficient efforts on conciliation. . . . The Commission responded that Title VII includes no such failure-to-conciliate affirmative defense, and it moved for partial summary judgment on that basis. . . . In the meantime, petitioner submitted “extensive discovery requests”—including more than 600 requests for admissions of fact—that “s(ought) information about the EEOC’s investigation and conciliation efforts.” . . . . Petitioner also “slowed discovery on the merits” by objecting to the Commission’s merits-related discovery requests on “failure to conciliate” grounds. . . .

(Emphasis supplied.)  The petition, response, and reply can all be downloaded from http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/mach-mining-v-equal-employment-opportunity-commission/. (ScotusBlog, www.scotusblog.com, is an extraordinarily useful website.) The text of the response makes a compelling case why there is no judicially-enforceable duty to conciliate; a later blog posting will address that question.

In the face of all these criticisms, fair-minded persons need to pause and consider how all these perceived problems came to exist.

First, expectations for the EEOC have always been very high. The Fourth Circuit’s view of the “public avenger” role of the EEOC after the 1972 amendments to Title VII giving it the power to sue in its own name were echoed by many courts in more prosaic opinions. Here is how the Fourth Circuit put it:

“But, unlike the individual charging party, the EEOC, when it sued, did so ‘to vindicate the public interest’ as expressed in the Congressional purpose of eliminating employment discrimination as a national evil rather than for the redress of the strictly private interests of the complaining party. Because of this significant difference, the EEOC’s suit was ‘broader (in scope) than the interests of the charging parties. It follows that the standing of the EEOC to sue under Title VII cannot be controlled or determined by the standing of the charging party to sue, limited as he is in rights to the vindication of his own individual rights. To hold otherwise, as did the District Court, would be to continue treating the sole purpose of the Title to be the correction of individual wrongs rather than of public or ‘societal’ wrongs as well as to deny to the EEOC the right to be any more than a mere proxy for the charging party rather than what Congress by the Amendments of 1972 intended, i.e., the public avenger by civil suit of any discrimination uncovered in a valid investigation and subjected to conciliation under the Act. We find no warrant whatsoever for placing such limitation on the right or standing of the EEOC to bring suit; indeed, were such limitation to be imposed, it would be in our opinion a clear nullification of the legislative intent in enacting the Amendments of 1972. . . . “

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. General Electric Co., 532 F.2d 359, 373 (4th Cir. 1976) (footnotes omitted; emphasis supplied).

Second, the EEOC has always been starved for resources, and the starvation has become endemic:.

President EEOC Authorized Staff When He Took the Oath of Office EEOC Authorized Staff When He Left Office Reduction from January 1981: No. Reduction from January 1981: %
Ronald Reagan January 1981:  3,696 January 1989:  3,198 498 14.1%
George H.W. Bush January 1989:  3,198 January 1993:  3,071 625 17.7%
Bill Clinton January 1993:  3,071 January 2001:  3,055 641 18.2%
George W. Bush January 2001:  3,055 January 2009:  2,556 1,140 32.3%
Barack Obama January 2009:  2,556 N.A.   Currently 2,347 1,349 38.2%

Source, EEOC Budget figures, http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/plan/budgetandstaffing.cfm, last visited June 8, 2014, with my calculations in the last two columns.

During this same time period, the EEOC has been given very substantial new responsibilities, including the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act of 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008.

Similarly, the EEOC’s web site shows that 93,727 charges were filed in FY 2013, compared with 72,302 in FY 1992, the earliest year with reported data. That is a 22.9% increase.

Moreover, during this period Congress has required the EEOC to devote a substantial part of its budget to help fund State and local fair employment practice agencies.

Third, the recent difficulties in financing government operations make realistic planning very difficult. Not only do agencies know whether the Office of Management and Budget will recommend budget figures for the next year comparable to those of the current year, the present dysfunction in Congress makes it impossible to tell what will be appropriated. There may be government-wide hiring freezes lasting for years. When those are lifted, agencies hire as many as possible, because they do not know when they will be able to hire again. Meanwhile, salaries and rents increase with inflation, and the training budget is among the first to be cut. The lack of professional training for attorneys, investigators, and others harms many aspects of the Commission’s operations.

Fourth, while many EEOC staff members are extremely well-skilled and dedicated, not all meet those criteria. The EEOC has never taken seriously the idea in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 that it should adopt truly objective and fair performance standards, train staff to meet those objective standards, and terminate staff who either cannot or will not come up to objective and fair performance standards. It has routinely refused to take action against unwilling or incompetent employees, and incoming Chairs have sometimes withdrawn pending disciplinary charges against large numbers of employees in a misguided effort to build good will, and an understandable but still mistaken effort to avoid the large amounts of management time that would have to be devoted to cleaning house.

Now consider: What private firm would have a chance of meeting its goals under these conditions: heavily increased workload, almost a 40% reduction in staff, little technology to make up the slack, no money for training, an inadequate effort to identify and get rid of poor performers, and the need to give a lot of discretion to untrained staff regardless of their performance?

It is close to a miracle that the EEOC can accomplish anything at all. Yet it has provided very useful guidance to employers, unions, and employees, and has recovered substantial amounts in resolutions of charges and in litigation.

When we criticize the agency, we need to be mindful of the difficulties under which it labors.

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Richard T. Seymour
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