Age Issue Overlooked in U.S. Supreme Court Debate

The U.S. Supreme Court on January 13 will hear arguments in an important case in which industry groups are seeking to force the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to engage in time-consuming and fruitless  “conciliation” efforts with recalcitrant employers prior to filing a lawsuit against the employer.

One federal appeals court has characterized the so-called “failure to conciliate” defense  – which permits employers to argue that the EEOC didn’t try hard enough to settle a case before filing a lawsuit – a cynical tactic that employers pursue to waste EEOC resources and delay a finding of  liability for employment discrimination.

Interminable delays arguably have the most severe impact  in age discrimination cases because older workers have less time remaining in the workplace (and elsewhere) to achieve justice under the law. I wrote an article this week about two plaintiffs in an age discrimination case who actually died while their cases languished in a Kansas federal court for almost a decade.  Yet, the issue of the devastating impact of delay in age discrimination cases has not been raised in the Mach Mining case.

The U.S. Congress requires the EEOC to conduct conciliation proceedings as a precondition to suing an employer for employment discrimination. In some cases, federal judges have issued one ruling that unilaterally dismisses dozens of substantive claims brought by victims of  egregious discrimination because they deemed the EEOC’s conciliation efforts to be inadequate.

In early 2008, the EEOC received a complaint from a woman  alleging that Mach Mining had denied her employment as a coal miner because of her sex. The EEOC chose to prosecute the case, thereby depriving the woman of the right to file a federal lawsuit on her own behalf. The EEOC presented Mach Mining with a verbal conciliation demand in an effort to resolve the dispute, which Mach Mining rejected. The EEOC then filed a class action lawsuit alleging that Mach Mining  had never hired a woman for a mining position and did not even have a women‘s changing room.  For more details about the issue and the case, see Mach Mining v. EEOC.

For six years, Mach Mining has successfully shifted the focus of the case from its alleged systemic hiring discrimination against women to whether the EEOC engaged in sufficient conciliation efforts prior to filing suit. And that’s the problem with the “failure to conciliate” defense.  At best, it delays justice while the parties squabble over what should be a simple procedural matter.  Did the EEOC make an offer of conciliation?  Did the employer accept or reject the offer?

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently the focus of furious lobbying efforts led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to obtain the Court’s stamp of approval for judicial oversight over the EEOC’s conciliation efforts.  In addition to the Chamber, an amicus brief was filed by the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest human resources membership organization, and  the so-called Equal Employment Advisory Council, a nationwide association of employers that includes over 250 major U.S. corporations; the American Insurance Association; and, the Retail Litigation Center, Inc.

On the other side, an amicus brief supporting he EEOC’s position was filed by the states of Arizona, Hawaii, Illinois and Washington; the  “women’s rights organizations” Equal Rights Advocates of San Francisco and Legal Momentum of New York; and the Impact Fund, a nonprofit foundation based in Berkeley California that focuses on public impact litigation involving civil rights, environmental justice and poverty law. Signing on to the Impact Fund’s amicus brief were the AARP,  the National Employment Lawyers Association; Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus;  Disability Rights California;  and, Public Counsel.

The brief filed by the Impact Fund was general in nature and did not address how the so-called “failure to conciliate” defense affects specific groups like older workers.  Ideally, the AARP, which touts itself as the nation’s premiere advocacy group for Americans over the age of 50, would have followed the example of the women’s groups by filing an independent amicus brief addressing the particularly severe impact of  needless delay in age discrimination cases.

In my recent book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, I argue that age discrimination  in employment is epidemic in the United States because the Age Discrimination in Employment Act  of 1967 was weak to begin with and has been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court.   Older workers literally are treated like second class citizens under the laws of the United States.  Meanwhile, the EEOC has virtually ignored a record increase in age discrimination complaints brought during and since the Great Recession.

Appeals Ct Sides with EEOC in Conciliation Dispute

A federal appeals court in Chicago has departed from several other federal circuits by ruling that judicial review is not appropriate over efforts by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission  to settle employment discrimination complaints.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act directs the EEOC  to try to negotiate an end to an employer’s unlawful employment practices before it seeks a judicial remedy but it does not require the EEOC to actually reach a settlement.

Nevertheless, several federal appeals courts have allowed employers to raise an affirmative defense in employment discrimination cases that the EEOC failed to engage in good faith settlement negotiations  prior to filing a lawsuit. This is referred to as a “failure-to-conciliate” defense.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago ruled last week that an implied failure-to-conciliate defense would add an “unwarranted mechanism” in Title VII by which employers could avoid liability for unlawful discrimination. “They can do so through protracted and ultimately pointless litigation over whether the EEOC tried hard enough to settle,” said the panel.

In addition, the panel said, the implied failure-to-conciliate defense runs “flatly contrary to the broad statutory prohibition on using what was said and done during the conciliation process  ‘as evidence in a subsequent proceeding.’”

Six other federal circuits – the Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits –  allow some form of judicial review over the sufficiency or good faith of the EEOC’s conciliation efforts.

The 7th Circuit ruling came in a 2008 sex discrimination case filed against Mach Mining, which  allegedly refused to hire female applicants  for coal mining jobs. After investigating, the EEOC found there was reasonable cause to believe Mach had discriminated against a class of female job applicants at its Johnston City site. The EEOC engaged in informal conciliation with Mach but in 2011 the EEOC concluded the parties could not agree and filed a lawsuit.

Mach argued the suit should be dismissed because the EEOC failed to conciliate in good faith.  The EEOC did not contend that its efforts were either sincere or reasonable, only that they were not reviewable as a defense to unlawful discrimination.

The 7th Circuit panel said the U.S. Congress gave the EEOC broad discretion to negotiate as it sees fit, including the power to accept or reject any offer or proposed settlement for any reason.  “Nor can Mach Mining explain just how many offers, counteroffers, conferences, or phone calls should be necessary to satisfy judicial review, despite repeated invitations to provide the court with a workable standard,” it added.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a brief in the case arguing that it was necessary to keep the EEOC on a tight leash to avoid “agency shenanigans” but the 7th Circuit panel noted the EEOC  filed only 122 merit lawsuits in 2012.  “That so few unsuccessful efforts at conciliation end up in court shows how constrained the agency is by practical limits of budget and personnel,” said the appeals court.

The panel remanded the case, EEOC v. Mach Mining, No. 13-2456,  to the lower court for further proceedings.

In brutally harsh decision last fall in  EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc.,  Chief Judge Linda R. Reade of the U.S. District Court of Iowa ruled  that the  EEOC  must pay CRST, one of the nation’s leading transport companies,  a judgment of $4,694,422.14  stemming from a lawsuit filed by the EEOC alleging sex discrimination.  Judge Reade dismissed at least 67 class members from that case because the EEOC’s allegedly failed to conciliate with CRST with respect to each individual class member.