Thoughts About the EEOC’s New Direction

For an employee advocate, there is something vaguely troubling about the EEOC’s 2015 performance report.

For one thing, the agency touts as an achievement that it provided 3,700 “no-cost” educational training and outreach events to business. But why are taxpayers offering free training to business?  Employers have a legal obligation to follow U.S. law. Isn’t this the cost of doing business?

As an attorney, I have to pay each year to take legal education programs so that I can keep abreast of the law and renew my law license. Can’t Walmart and Microsoft afford a few bucks to learn how to conform to the nation’s discrimination laws.

More importantly, the EEOC brags that it secured a record $356.6 million for victims of discrimination in private, state and local government, and federal workplaces through mediation, conciliation and settlements.  This compares to $65.3 million recovered through litigation.  It’s pretty clear where the EEOC’s focus is these days –  conciliation and mediation. (It’s hard to know what the EEOC’s $356.6 million in conciliation and mediation settlements really signifies without knowing how many cases were settled, the details of the complaints and the settlements.)

It’s fair to ask what is the cost of  this new focus on settlements?

For an employer, a settlement can be more like a pat on the hand than a visit to the woodshed.  The worst case scenario is that employers are permitted to  partnershipworm their way out of serious discrimination liability through free EEOC-sponsored dispute resolution, by paying modest recompense to their victims and agreeing to follow the law for the life of the settlement agreement.  Best of all they can avoid paying court costs and attorney fees associated with litigation. Is this  the best way  to deter discrimination in employment?

It’s not hard to understand the EEOC’s focus on settlements, given the hostility of federal courts to discrimination claims  (and the EEOC) and the drum beat of criticism by federal legislators who are beholden to big business for campaign contributions. But is it a good thing?

The EEOC is required by law to engage in conciliation or to “permit” employers to voluntarily comply with discrimination laws before the EEOC files a lawsuit. A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year held that federal courts may conduct a “narrow” review of whether the EEOC met its statutory obligation with respect to conciliation.  The Court in the case of Mach Mining v. EEOC overturned a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit that held courts lack  the authority to second-guess the EEOC’s conciliation efforts. This ruling may have emboldened employers to demand more acquiesence from the EEOC.

It’s not hard to understand why the victim would buy into a settlement. Poor and middle-class Americans cannot afford legal counsel and federal discrimination law is a hopeless morass as a result of federal court decisions. One retired federal judge says the courts have essentially “gutted” Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Moreover, federal courts dismiss employment discrimination cases at a far higher rate than other business cases. A discrimination victim cannot be blamed for taking a pittance rather than spending years  before hostile federal court judges, at great personal and financial expense, only to end up with the same pittance or nothing.

You might say, “Well at least the victim got something.”  But this kind of thinking makes us all complicit in our broken system of workplace justice

The EEOC states that it achieved “record success” in its conciliation of private-sector charges, with 44 percent of conciliations successfully resolved and 64 percent of systemic investigations resulting in voluntary resolutions. The agency states these “achievements” led to a 6 percent increase in charge resolutions by the EEOC.

Approximately 4,000 fewer charges were filed with the EEOC in FY 2015 compared to FY 2013 (93,727 charges) and there were  10,000 fewer charges compared to FY 2011 (99,947 charges). The economy has certainly improved but are workplaces becoming any fairer?   Or have Americans lost faith that our system of justice will do anything about unfairness in the workplace?

The EEOC resolved 92,641 charges and received 89,385 charges in fiscal year 2015.

In FY 2015, the agency filed  142 lawsuits, which is a  slight increase from the 133 lawsuits filed in FY 2014 and FY 2012 (122 merits lawsuits) but a sharp decline compared to the number of suits filed in past years (250 or more).

Mediation involves a disinterested third-party who guides the parties to a voluntary resolution.

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