On April 29, 2015, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that courts have authority to review whether the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") has fulfilled its Title VII duty to attempt conciliation. Justice Elena Kagan's opinion clarified, however, that "the scope of that review is narrow." Specifically, the Court held that "the appropriate scope of review enforces" the requirements of Title VII's conciliation provision, "in brief, that the EEOC afford the employer a chance to discuss and rectify a specified discriminatory practice."
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., a person who claims to have experienced certain types of employment discrimination must file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. The EEOC will then notify the employer of the charge and will investigate the person's claims. If the EEOC determines that there is reasonable cause to believe that the charge is true, it must "endeavor to eliminate [the] alleged unlawful employment practice by informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion." If the EEOC does not obtain a conciliation agreement through these informal methods, it may sue an employer, a union, or other organizations.In the Mach Mining case, the EEOC received a charge of discrimination in which the charging party, a female job applicant, alleged that Mach Mining refused to hire females into mining and related nonoffice positions because of their sex. After finding that reasonable cause existed to believe that Mach Mining discriminated against females in its hiring, the EEOC sent a letter inviting the charging party and Mach Mining to begin informal conciliation. A year passed, and the EEOC sent another letter to Mach Mining, stating that the conciliation efforts had failed. The EEOC then brought suit against Mach Mining on behalf of the charging party and a class of female applicants who had applied to Mach Mining for nonoffice jobs.
After the EEOC filed suit, Mach Mining asserted in defense that the EEOC failed to conciliate in good faith before bringing the action. The EEOC moved for summary judgment on this issue, arguing that the conciliation process is not subject to judicial review. The United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois denied the EEOC's motion, holding that a court could review the EEOC's conciliation process and that such review should consider whether the EEOC made a "sincere and reasonable effort to negotiate." The Seventh Circuit later reversed this holding. The Seventh Circuit concluded that because the EEOC "pled on the face of its complaint that it ha[d] complied with all" prerequisites to suit, and because the EEOC's two letters to Mach Mining were "facially sufficient" to show that conciliation had occurred, its "review of [the conciliation process] is satisfied."
The Supreme Court reversed the Seventh Circuit in a unanimous 9–0 decision, holding that a court can review whether the EEOC satisfied its obligation to attempt conciliation before filing suit. The Court advised that the scope of this review is "narrow," however, and "matches the terms of Title VII's conciliation provision." In order to satisfy the terms of Title VII, the EEOC must "communicate in some way … about an alleged unlawful employment practice in an 'endeavor' to achieve an employer's voluntary compliance. That means the EEOC must inform the employer about the specific allegation, as the Commission typically does in announcing its determination of reasonable cause. Such notice properly describes both what the employer has done and which employees (or what class of employees) have suffered as a result." Additionally, the EEOC "must try to engage the employer in some form of discussion … so as to give the employer an opportunity to remedy the allegedly discriminatory practice." The Court concluded that "[j]udicial review of those requirements (and nothing else) ensures that the Commission complies with the statute" while still "allow[ing] the EEOC to exercise all the expansive discretion Title VII gives it to decide how to conduct conciliation efforts and when to end them."
The Court's decision resolves a split among circuit courts, which had held that Title VII allows judicial review of EEOC's conciliation efforts, but had not agreed on what that review entailed. Now, according to the Supreme Court's opinion, "[a] sworn affidavit from the EEOC stating that it has performed the obligations noted above but that its efforts have failed will usually suffice to show that it has met the conciliation requirement." At the same time, if an employer "provides credible evidence of its own, in the form of an affidavit or otherwise, indicating 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 fact-finding necessary to decide that limited dispute. Should the court find in favor of the employer, the appropriate remedy is to order the EEOC to undertake the mandated efforts to obtain voluntary compliance."