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The EEOC has limited its own authority to file “pattern or practice” lawsuits

The EEOC has formally acknowledged its own limitations on its authority to bring a “pattern or practice” lawsuit against an employer. When the EEOC brings such a lawsuit, it is not acting in a representative capacity on behalf of any particular employees (as it does in a so-called sec. 706 claim, citing Title VII’s relevant section), rather it is suing (under sec. 707) as the government itself asserting the employer has a pattern-or-practice of discrimination, which according to the Supreme Court requires it, in short, to prove that the employer’s “standard operating procedure” is to discriminate, quoting Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters v. U.S., 431 U.S. 324 (1977). Previously the EEOC has argued that, when it sues under sec. 707 it does not have to comply with a number of pre-lawsuit requirements. In a recent opinion letter, the EEOC reversed course on that argument and acknowledged that, no, it must comply with those pre-lawsuit requirements.

This opens a number of possible defenses by employers faced with pattern-or-practice lawsuits, including arguments that the EEOC failed to satisfy pre-lawsuit requirements such as the following:

  • The requirement for an actual charge to have been filed first.
  • The requirement for an investigation of that charge.
  • The requirement for good faith conciliation efforts by the EEOC prior to filing its lawsuit.

This also permits employers to assert that

  • They acted in good faith, and/or
  • They modified or rescinded the pattern-or-practice.

Arguably the latter gives employers the ability now to moot any pattern-or-practice lawsuit by the EEOC by modifying or rescinding the practice, even after the EEOC has filed its lawsuit.

In its opinion letter, the EEOC also took the position that it can no longer use the pattern-or-practice process to challenge employer actions that are not themselves discriminatory. Specifically this seems to be a concession on its part that, contrary to its litigation efforts to-date, it does not actually have the authority to challenge mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements, even if they ultimately had the effect of limiting a worker’s ability to participate in governmental investigations.

Because the EEOC’s opinion letter was not issued through the formal rule-making process, future EEOC Commissioners could re-reverse course. However, this opinion letters is publicly available and at least establishes a dispute over the EEOC’s jurisdiction in pattern-or-practice cases, which, if re-reversed by an EEOC under the leadership of a Democratic President, could be seen by the courts as arguably at least in part political in nature and therefore deserving of Congressional clarification.

EEOC expands mediation and conciliation opportunities

The EEOC has increased the mediation and conciliation opportunities available to employers as part of its charge-handling procedures.

Mediation is the process employers are most familiar with. Some, but not all, charges are automatically eligible for mediation when a charge is filed with the EEOC. Employers will have noticed receiving a written offer to mediate (instead of investigating) with most charges. Although the EEOC hasn’t yet disclosed details, the EEOC has announced it will increase the types of charges automatically eligible for mediation. Employers are reminded that, when they receive notice of a charge without an offer to mediate, it is often an indication that the EEOC believes the charge raises possibly very severe allegations. Employers are always free to request mediation of such charges too, though the EEOC reserves the right to decline to undertake mediation in lieu of investigation.

Conciliation is less common. The EEOC is generally required to undertake conciliation before, itself, filing suit against employers in court. As part of its new initiative, and again without yet disclosing details, the EEOC has announced it will expand its conciliation efforts, including by requiring management within the EEOC to review settlement demands before they are even communicated to employers.

Employers facing charges of discrimination, or even possible litigation by the EEOC, should consider the availability of mediation and conciliation, especially under these expanded opportunities.

SCOTUS holds LGBTQ status is protected within Title VII’s meaning of “sex”

The Supreme Court held that LGBTQ status is already protected within Title VII’s meaning of the word “sex.”

Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.

In authoring the majority opinion, Justice Gorsuch observed that the word “sex” would likely not have been read that way by the drafters of Title VII in 1964, but the majority held that the term is unambiguous as drafted; according to well-established precedent, resort to legislative history is not permitted when a statutory text is unambiguous.

Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result. Likely, they weren’t thinking about many of the Act’s consequences that have become apparent over the years, including its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of motherhood or its ban on the sexual harassment of male employees. But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands. When the express terms of a statute give us one answer and extratextual considerations suggest another, it’s no contest. Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.

The majority confirmed that, while Title VII’s “sex” protections directly protect such traits/classes, plaintiffs may also assert sex-stereotyping claims related to such traits/classes, just as plaintiffs can assert sex-stereotyping claims based on male-female cys-gendered status.

To be sure, there may be cases in which a gay, lesbian, or transgender individual can make a claim like the one in Price Waterhouse. That is, there may be cases where traits or behaviors that some people associate with gays, lesbians, or transgender individuals are tolerated or valued in persons of one biological sex but not the other. But that is a different matter.

Reminder to provide compliant sexual harassment and other EEO-related training

As the new year begins, employers should consider reviewing their training regimen. A number of jurisdictions require sexual harassment and/or EEO-related training, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New York State, and New York City. Even more encourage employers to provide training, and in all 50 states and the federal judicial system, training is a vital component of a possible defense in the event of litigation.

Employers are reminded not to simply engineer their own training programs, as some jurisdictions, such as California, specify minimum content and training qualifications.

Likewise, employers should not assume that recent training will suffice. For example, in 2018 California, which has confirmed it requires such training for both non-supervisors and supervisors, amended its 2004 sexual harassment training law, to require training, at least every two years, to all new and current employees, starting in 2019, even if the employee was also trained on sexual harassment in 2018.