Before filing a discrimination claim in federal court under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is statutorily required to engage in potential settlement discussions (i.e., “conciliation”) with employers. However, what exactly is required in conciliation and the degree of effort that EEOC must undertake in connection with the same has been the subject of debate and litigation. On April 29, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the subject in Mach Mining LLC v. EEOC, holding that EEOC conciliation efforts are subject to judicial review (albeit limited).
As a general rule, an employee who wishes to pursue a discrimination claim under Title VII in federal or state court is first required to file a timely “charge” alleging an unlawful workplace practice with the EEOC, the agency charged with enforcing Title VII (among other statutes). The EEOC is required to then notify the employer of the charge and undertake an investigation. Should the EEOC find no reasonable cause to believe that the charge has merit, it must dismiss the charge, and the employee is then on his or her own to litigate the claim. However, if the EEOC finds reasonable cause to believe that the charge has merit, it is statutorily required to “endeavor to eliminate [the] alleged unlawful employment practice by informal methods of conference, conciliation and persuasion.” 42 U.S.C. §2000e-5(b) The issue recently before the Supreme Court was whether the EEOC’s conciliation efforts are subject to judicial review.
The instant case in Mach Mining arose out of an employee’s EEOC charge of alleged discrimination that Mach Mining LLC, a coal mining company in Johnson City, Illinois, had refused to hire her because she was a woman. Although the case record did not disclose specifics of the EEOC’s investigation efforts, the EEOC found reasonable cause to believe that the plaintiff’s charge (along with claims regarding a class of other women who had applied for mining jobs with Mach Mining) had merit. The EEOC then sent a letter to Mach Mining inviting the company to participate in informal dispute resolution. The record is devoid of any further details until approximately a year later, when the EEOC sent Mach Mining a second letter announcing that conciliation efforts had been unsuccessful.
Subsequently, the EEOC sued Mach Mining in federal court alleging gender discrimination in hiring. In its answer, Mach Mining alleged that the EEOC had failed to conciliate in good faith. The EEOC moved for summary judgment alleging that its conciliation efforts were not subject to judicial review. The federal district court ruled in favor of Mach Mining on that issue, holding that whether the EEOC made a good faith effort to negotiate was subject to judicial review. The Seventh Circuit, however, reversed, after which Mach Mining appealed to the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court Holding
The issues before the Supreme Court in Mach Mining were (1) whether the EEOC’s statutory obligation to engage in conciliation was subject to judicial review and, (2) if so, what was the appropriate standard of review to apply.
Writing for the unanimous court, Justice Kagan began by noting that the “Court applies a ‘strong presumption’ favoring judicial review of administrative action.” Further, the Court found that “though Congress gave the EEOC wide latitude to choose which ‘informal methods’ to use, it did not deprive the courts of judicially manageable criteria by which to review the conciliation process.” (Emphasis added). According to the Court, the statutory conciliation process specifically requires the EEOC to:
- provide appropriate notice by (a) informing the employer about the specific discrimination claim, and (b) describing what the employer has done and what the employees (or class of employees) have suffered as a result; and
- attempt to engage the employer in a discussion (written or oral), so the employer has an opportunity to achieve voluntary compliance.
The Court explained that the EEOC may satisfy these requirements if later challenged in litigation by submitting a sworn affidavit attesting that it has performed the aforementioned obligations. If, on the other hand, the employer presents concrete evidence that the EEOC did not satisfy these requirements, a court must engage in fact-finding to resolve the dispute. If a court ultimately finds that the EEOC did not satisfy its conciliations burden, the remedy is not to dismiss the charge, but rather to order the EEOC to engage in proper conciliation.
Significance for Employers
Mach Mining is an important decision for employers, as it establishes and confirms judicial oversight (albeit limited) of EEOC conciliation efforts. Practically speaking, the overall impact is narrow, as the remedy for unmet conciliation requirements is a stay, and not dismissal, of the underlying charge, and courts at this juncture are not empowered to determine whether the EEOC negotiated in good faith. Nonetheless, after Mach Mining, employers can expect a more substantive opportunity to engage in negotiations with the EEOC at the administrative level.