In Mach Mining, LLC v. EEOC, decided April 29, 2015, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that federal courts have the authority to review whether the EEOC satisfied its statutory obligation to engage in conciliation before filing suit against an employer.

Rejecting the EEOC’s position that its conciliation efforts are beyond judicial review, the Court stated that absent such review, “the Commission’s compliance with the law would rest in the Commission’s hands alone.” However, the Court held that the “scope of the judicial review is narrow.” The review examines whether the EEOC has properly informed the employer about the specific allegations of discrimination, including what practice has harmed which employees, and whether the EEOC tried “to engage the employer in some form of discussion (whether written or oral), so as to give the employer an opportunity to remedy the allegedly discriminatory practice.”

Background

In Mach Mining, a woman filed a charge with the EEOC claiming that the company had refused to hire her as a coal miner because of her sex. The EEOC found reasonable cause to believe that Mach Mining had engaged in unlawful hiring practices. The EEOC sent a letter to the parties inviting them to participate in “informal methods” of dispute resolution and stating that a Commission representative would contact Mach Mining to begin the conciliation process. About a year later, the EEOC sent Mach Mining a second letter stating that “such conciliation efforts as required by law have occurred and have been unsuccessful” and further efforts would be “futile.” There was no record of what, if anything, occurred during the time span between the first and second letter Mach Mining received from the EEOC.

Mach Mining argued in the district court that the EEOC failed to conciliate in good faith before filing a lawsuit. The EEOC sought summary judgment, claiming that its conciliation efforts are not reviewable and that, in any event, the two letters the EEOC sent to Mach Mining were sufficient proof of its efforts. The trial court denied the motion but the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that the EEOC’s conciliation efforts were not subject to judicial review. 

Supreme Court Decision

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court first stated that the EEOC’s duty to conciliate is a mandatory prerequisite to the EEOC filing a lawsuit. Further, the Court reasoned that there is a “strong presumption favoring judicial review of administrative action” and that nothing in Title VII overcomes that strong presumption. The Court analyzed the scope of the judicial review and rejected both the EEOC’s minimalist “facial examination of certain EEOC documents” and Mach Mining’s proposal for an in depth review. The Court instead settled on a limited judicial review of the EEOC’s conciliation efforts.

The Court stated that a sworn affidavit from the EEOC attesting that it has performed the conciliation obligations required by Title VII but its efforts failed “will usually suffice to show that it has met the conciliation requirement.” But if an employer provides credible evidence—either in the form of an affidavit or otherwise—that the EEOC “did not provide the requisite information about the charge or attempt to engage in a discussion about conciliating the claim, a court must conduct the factfinding necessary to decide that limited dispute.” If the court finds for the employer, the remedy is to order the EEOC to undertake the mandated efforts to obtain voluntary compliance. 

Implications

For employers, the implication of the Mach Mining decision is somewhat mixed. The decision makes clear to employers and to the EEOC that federal courts do have the authority to review whether the EEOC has met its pre-suit conciliation obligations and provides certain guidance regarding the adequacy of EEOC’s efforts. However, the scope of that judicial review is a “relatively barebones review.” Going forward, employers should document any conciliation efforts so that, if necessary and as outlined by the Court, the employer can demonstrate that the EEOC did not provide the requisite information about the charge or failed to engage in a discussion about conciliating the claim.