Tuesday, September 22, 2015

EEOC can sue Sterling Jewelers for nationwide discrimination

In this case, after receiving 19 individual complaints of discrimination against Sterling Jewelers (the largest fine jewelry company in the U.S.), the EEOC conducted an investigation, finding that Sterling had systematically discriminated against women in promotions and salary. The EEOC then sued Sterling in federal court, which dismissed the case on the ground that the EEOC had not proven that it had conducted a pre-suit investigation. The Court of Appeals reverses.

The case is EEOC v. Sterling Jewelers, Inc., decided on September 9. In 2015, the Supreme Court said in the Mach Mining case said that, before the EEOC can bring an enforcement action under Title VII, it must:

(1) receive a formal charge of discrimination against the employer; (2) provide notice of the charge to the employer; (3) investigate the charge; (4) make and give notice of its determination that there was reasonable cause to believe that a violation of Title VII occurred; and (5) make a good faith effort to conciliate the charges.
While courts have authority to review whether the EEOC has fulfilled its pre-suit administrative obligations, the Second Circuit has never determined the proper scope of that review. On authority of Mach Mining, the Court finds that judicial review into this is limited. "[C]ourts maynot review the sufficiency of an investigation -- only whether an investigation occurred." The Court of Appeals (Walker, Lynch and Lohier) says:

In order to prove that it has fulfilled its pre‐suit investigative obligation, the EEOC must show that it took steps to determine whether there was reasonable cause to believe that the allegations in the charge are true. Here, the EEOC’s complaint against Sterling alleged nationwide discrimination; accordingly, the agency must show that it undertook to investigate whether there was a basis for alleging such widespread discrimination. The EEOC need not, however, describe in detail every step it took or the evidence it uncovered. As with the conciliation process, an affidavit from the EEOC, stating that it performed its investigative obligations and outlining the steps taken to investigate the charges, will usually suffice.
That is what we call deferential review. But that's what the Supreme Court authorized in the Mach Mining case. It is not for the federal courts to second-guess EEOC investigations. In this case, the Court of Appeals holds that the district court got it wrong. While purporting to examine the existence of the EEOC's investigation, it actually considered its sufficiency. It could not consider sufficiency. Since the record shows the EEOC did in fact investigate the discrimination complaints, that is enough to allow it to bring this enforcement lawsuit.

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