Seyfarth Synopsis: With the publication of a ten-year review of its systemic discrimination program on July 7, 2016, the EEOC seeks to blunt employer and judicial scrutiny of the EEOC’s litigation practices by emphasizing its internal staffing and technological improvements, the gains it has made over time in number of people served, programmatic relief achieved, and monetary relief obtained, and its vision for the future as a nationwide law enforcement agency uniquely positioned to overcome challenges faced by the private bar in avoiding binding employment arbitration agreements and securing class-wide relief under Title VII.

As we have blogged about here here,and here, the EEOC’s systemic discrimination program repeatedly has come under judicial scrutiny for its failure to satisfy Title VII’s jurisdictional requirements that it investigate, provide notice of, and attempt to conciliate claims before launching broad, expensive litigation against employers on those claims, as well as specific failures to bring legally sufficient or factually sustainable litigation. A 2006 Systemic Task Force Report to the Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commissionraised specific concerns about EEOC’s inconsistent investigations, lack of training and expertise, lack of capacity for data analyses, and an absence of incentives to properly implement a coordinated, nationwide systemic discrimination program.

Now under the leadership of Commissioner Jenny Yang, a former plaintiff’s class action lawyer for the Washington D.C. firm of Cohen, Milstein, Sellers & Toll, PLLC, the EEOC published on July 7, 2016 a ten-year a review of its efforts to improve its systemic discrimination litigation program and objectives. Reporting an overall increase in litigation and raw dollars recovered from employers through litigation or conciliation, the EEOC review focuses on its internal efforts to grow its investigatory and litigation capacities and to transform itself into a “national law enforcement agency.” Restating its purpose that “[t]ackling systemic discrimination — where a discriminatory pattern or practice or policy has a broad impact on an industry, company or geographic area — is central to the mission of EEOC,” the EEOC report signals employers, legislators, and courts alike that its systemic program will proceed undaunted by judicial challenges to its practices, and will continue to be driven by metrics that “incentivize” investigations, conciliations and systemic work.

Employers should pay particular attention to the metrics driving EEOC performance and the trajectory of its systemic litigation program.

Key Findings

From the fall of 2013 through August 2014, EEOC Commissioner Yang and her staff conducted a review of the EEOC’s systemic program since the implementation of the 2006 Systemic Task Force Report. As a result of its review, the EEOC claims to have “made considerable progress in achieving a truly nationwide, coordinated, and strategic systemic program.” Some of the key findings published in the report include:

  • Investments in hiring and training staff focused on systemic work have produced a 250 percent increase in systemic investigations in the past five years.
  • Concerted efforts to reach voluntary resolutions of systemic investigations have resulted in the conciliation success rate tripling from 21% in fiscal year 2007 to 64 percent in fiscal year 2015.
  • The systemic litigation program has achieved significant impact, with a 10-year success rate of 94 percent for systemic lawsuits.
  • The EEOC tripled the amount of monetary relief recovered for victims in the past five fiscal years from 2011 through 2015, compared to the relief recovered in the first five years after the Systemic Task Force Report.

Although EEOC does not define “success,” the report makes clear that EEOC measures success in three ways: numbers of employees who benefit from a systemic investigation and/or lawsuit, targeted programmatic relief, and the realization of dollars.

In 2014, less than 1,000 individuals were said to have benefited from successful EEOC systemic lawsuits, a sharp decline from the nearly 8,000 individuals in 2013. However, the 2015 number soared past these figures, with nearly 10,000 individuals benefiting from successful EEOC systemic lawsuits, the most since 2008. The EEOC reports that “significantly more individuals directly have benefited from EEOC systemic lawsuits that through individual or small multi-victim suits brought by EEOC.”

While the percentage of systemic lawsuits in the active litigation docket has remained roughly the same from 2013-2015, ranging from 22% to 25%, the EEOC reports that the percentage of resolutions with targeted equitable, or “programmatic” relief has jumped from 64% to 81.2% over the last three years.

In terms of monetary relief from the combined resolutions of systemic investigations and systemic lawsuits, the EEOC trumpets that its results have jumped from 15 resolutions totaling $5.99 million in 2006 to 296 resolutions totaling $80.28 million in 2015, with over 16,000 individuals receiving monetary relief that year.

Targeting Enforcement

Statistically, the EEOC continued to focus heavily on disability and race claims. From 2011-2015, 32% of the successful conciliations of systemic investigations involved disability discrimination, with the next highest being race at 17%. The EEOC’s challenges to employer hiring practices dominated with 23% of successful conciliations, followed by reasonable accommodation practices at 21%. These areas can be expected to continue as target enforcement areas for the EEOC.

In terms of federal sector compliance, the EEOC reported issuing a series of federal sector decisions finding that discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation constitutes sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII. The report signals the EEOC’s objective of increasing its activity in these developing areas of law.

The report also makes an unusually direct pitch for the EEOC to be the litigation partner of choice in overcoming mandatory employment arbitration agreements and the challenges to the plaintiffs’ bar of bringing statistical disparate impact cases under Title VII in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision rendering class certification based on mere statistical evidence untenable in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011)

What This Means For Employers

While it certainly is not difficult to imagine the EEOC or any entity positing its best numbers when publishing a self-review, employers absolutely need to pay attention to these results. First, the data illustrates that the EEOC is putting more time and resources into systemic cases, and as a result, has increasingly become more aggressive in their pursuit of “big fish” employers. While the number of individuals said to have benefited from systemic lawsuits has teeter-tottered up and down the last few years, the report manifests an aggressive agenda to pursue these prime lawsuits. Thus, employers should expect systemic investigations to continue on the uptick.

Given their success in the disability context, especially with regards to hiring and reasonable accommodation, the EEOC likely will not stray from what has worked. Thus, employers facing challenges in this area need to focus on strategies of compliance and risk avoidance. For businesses with nationwide operations, this will require heightened communication amongst various regions and sectors to ensure compliance with the law.

The EEOC trumpets that it has hired systemic investigators, social scientists and labor economists to support its systemic discrimination program in every district, and boldly states that “[t]hey have the expertise and training to effectively manage complex investigations, to analyze relevant data, and to develop statistical evidence.” The EEOC reports that “[i]n most years since 2008, EEOC has provided systemic training to lead systemic investigators and systemic coordinators.” While this reporting now leaves the EEOC with little to no excuse when facing judicial scrutiny for failing to comply with Title VII’s mandate of investigating, notifying employers of the claims against them and attempting to conciliate those claims as predicates to litigation, this reporting also signals that the EEOC has increased its trained resources to grow its program.

Further, the EEOC reports a significant investment in technologies that allow personnel to access and analyze employer, regional or industry workforce demographic data to inform charges and investigations on a nationwide basis. Employers cannot presume that investigators will deal with charges individually without reviewing all EEOC charges and investigations against an employer, and industry data, for potential systemic opportunities.

Finally, the EEOC reports a slow but steady increase in the use of Commissioner’s Charges as a vehicle for enforcement. Employers may expect the EEOC to continue to increase its reliance on this tool in their toolkit.

The EEOC’s report states that in the future it will focus on three key, although vaguely defined, objectives in order to expand the agency’s impact and better serve the public, including: (1) executing national strategies to address persistent and emerging systemic issues; (2) advancing solutions that promote lasting opportunity in the workplace; and (3) strengthening the agency’s technology and infrastructure. With increases in systemic program resources and incentives to generate big outcomes in terms of individuals benefited, programmatic relief obtained and dollars generated, employers can expect the EEOC to cast a wide range of nets across the county in hopes that some of their catches will result in the next big systemic lawsuit.