As we have previously reported, the U.S. Supreme Court held earlier this year in EEOC v. Mach Mining, 135 S.Ct. 1645 (2015) that courts have the authority to review whether the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has fulfilled its statutory duty to attempt to conciliate charges of discrimination prior to filing suit. At that time we explained that, while Mach Mining was a victory for employers, the true impact of the case would depend on whether lower courts interpret the decision as requiring a true change in how the EEOC participates in the conciliation process.
Last week, the U.S. District Court for Northern District of Illinois applied Mach Mining in refusing to limit the scope of the EEOC’s litigation against auto parts chain AutoZone. EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc., et al, 2015 WL 6745123 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 2, 2015). Although Mach Mining involved the EEOC’s obligations at the conciliation stage, AutoZone involved an earlier stage in the enforcement scheme set forth in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the investigation stage. The AutoZone decision is noteworthy because, while the court determined that it made sense to apply Mach Mining’s logic to the investigation stage, ultimately the judicial review of an EEOC investigation is so deferential that it will be an exceptional case where that review makes a difference.
In AutoZone, employees at three AutoZone stores in Illinois separately filed charges with the EEOC in 2010 alleging that they had been discriminated against based on their disabilities. In 2012 the EEOC determined that it had found reasonable cause to believe that AutoZone had discriminated against each complainant because of their disabilities by refusing to make reasonable accommodations and by discharging the complainants in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In May 2013 the EEOC issued amended determinations for the three individuals, in which the agency found reasonable cause to believe that AutoZone had discriminated against the individuals as well as a “class of other employees at [AutoZone’s] stores throughout the United States” because of its attendance policy, under which employees were assessed points and eventually discharged because of absences, including disability-related absences.
After the EEOC determined that its conciliation efforts had failed, it filed suit against AutoZone in May 2014 and sought relief on behalf of the three complainants as well as unidentified “aggrieved individuals” affected by AutoZone’s so-called “no-fault” attendance policy. AutoZone then filed a motion to limit the scope of the lawsuit to the three stores where the individual complainants worked because the EEOC allegedly: (1) failed to conduct a nationwide investigation of AutoZone’s employment practices, and (2) did not explain why it issued an amended determination in May 2013 to include a class of individuals.
The district court denied the motion. The court first noted that under EEOC v. Caterpillar, Inc., 409 F.3d 831 (7th Cir. 2005), which was binding on the court, it could not inquire into the sufficiency of the EEOC’s pre-suit investigation in order to limit the scope of the lawsuit. The court then discussed Mach Mining, explaining that while that decision focused on the conciliation process, its principles supported the reasoning applied to the “investigation” requirement at issue in Caterpillar and the case at hand. Specifically, the court relied on Mach Mining’s directive that the proper scope of judicial review of the EEOC’s pre-suit investigation should “match the terms of the Title VII’s provisions regarding the conduct of investigations.” The court found that while Title VII requires the EEOC to conduct an investigation, it does not mandate any particular standards or techniques. Rather, if the EEOC finds after its investigation reasonable cause to believe a violation of the statute occurred, then the EEOC must issue a “reasonable cause” determination that “properly describes both what the employer has done and which employees have suffered as a result.”
Applying these principles, the court found that the determinations issued by the EEOC stated that the EEOC had investigated and that it had identified the allegedly discriminatory “no fault” attendance policy. Accordingly, underMach Mining and Caterpillar, the EEOC had satisfied its investigatory obligations under Title VII because its determinations: (1) stated that the EEOC had investigated; and (2) identified the alleged discrimination discovered during the investigation. The court also rejected AutoZone’s contention that the scope of the litigation should be limited to the three Illinois stores where the complainants had worked, holding that the EEOC had no obligation to explain why it amended its finding to be on behalf of a class of unnamed individuals.
As we explained when the Supreme Court decided Mach Mining, if lower courts read Title VII’s language regarding the conciliation process to require the EEOC to provide actual meaningful information during conciliation, employers would benefit by having actual information about the charge at issue and the ability to negotiate a voluntary resolution before facing the cost and burden of defending an EEOC-initiated lawsuit. AutoZone suggests that, at least with respect to the investigation process, Mach Mining may not substantially change the status quo. The AutoZone court did note that the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals had not yet considered the impact, if any, ofMach Mining on the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Caterpillar. Until that time, employers within the Seventh Circuit (Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) should not expect Mach Mining to lead to substantial changes in the EEOC’s processes.
Separately, this case is a reminder of the EEOC’s hostility toward “no-fault” attendance policies because they penalize employees whose absences are due to their disabilities. Employers who maintain such policies should consider revising them to provide for a case-by-case review where employees with known disabilities are absent from work.