Seventh Circuit Rules That EEOC Must Try to Resolve Disputes Through Conciliation Before Filing Suit

On December 17, 2015, the Seventh Circuit held in EEOC v. CVS Pharmacy Inc. that the EEOC was required to first attempt to resolve its dispute with CVS through conciliation before bringing suit over whether CVS’s language in its severance agreements constituted a “pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment” of rights secured by Title VII. The EEOC alleged that CVS’s standard severance agreement was overly broad, misleading, and intended to deter terminated employees from filing charges with the EEOC even though the agreement provided a carve-out recognizing the employee’s right to “participate with any appropriate federal, state or local government agency enforcing discrimination laws.”

We have previously blogged about this specific case here and other attempts by the EEOC to broaden their enforcement powers by skirting its conciliation duties here, here, and here.

In February 2014, the EEOC filed suit in federal district court in Illinois alleging that CVS’s severance agreements constituted a “pattern or practice” in violation of Section 707(a) of Title VII by interfering with an employee’s full enjoyment of the rights afforded by Title VII. In granting CVS’s motion to dismiss the complaint, the district court determined that the EEOC was first required to conciliate its claim before bringing a civil suit—a prerequisite that the EEOC claimed it did not have to meet because “pattern or practice” claims brought under Section 707(a) authorizes the agency to bring such actions without following the pre-suit procedures in Section 706—including conciliation. The district court granted CVS summary judgment dismissing the EEOC’s suit finding that the agency was required to conciliate its claims before filing its civil suit. In dismissing the EEOC’s suit, the district court also questioned whether or not an employer’s decision to offer a severance agreement could be the basis for a “pattern or practice” discrimination suit without any allegation that the employer had actually engaged in retaliatory or discriminatory employment practices—an allegation that was missing from the EEOC’s complaint.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit rejected the EEOC’s position that Section 707(a) relieved it from any obligation to follow the pre-suit procedures found in Section 706. In addition, the Seventh Circuit held that the prohibition against “pattern or practice” discrimination found in Section 707(a) did not create a broad enforcement power for the EEOC to pursue non-discriminatory employment practices that it dislikes but, rather, simply permits the EEOC to pursue multiple violations of Title VII. Because several circuits, including the Seventh Circuit, have found that conditioning benefits on a promise not to file charges with the EEOC is not, in itself, retaliation under Title VII, the court found that simply offering the severance agreement was not discrimination, and therefore, the EEOC failed to state a claim under Title VII. The Seventh Circuit’s holding is in line with the recent Supreme Court decision in Mach Mining, LLC v. EEOC, which found that the EEOC can only resort to litigation when informal methods of dispute resolution fail because conciliation is a “key component of the statutory scheme” of Title VII.

Although this case was decided in the employer’s favor regarding the waivers contained in its severance agreement, it is still recommended that employers include explicit and express provisions in their severance agreements that make clear: (i) that even though a severance agreement may provide that an employee may waive his or her right to sue in any court or agency, an employee should still be permitted by the express language of the agreement to participate in agency proceedings that enforce discrimination laws; (ii) that the waivers and releases are not to be construed to interfere with the EEOC’s rights and responsibilities to enforce federal anti-discrimination statutes under its jurisdiction or those rights of any state administrative agency; and (iii) that the employee has the protected right to file a charge or participate in an investigation or proceeding conducted by the EEOC or any state administrative agency charged with the authority to enforce anti-discrimination laws. Until the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately rules on the issues presented in the CVS case, employers should expect that the EEOC will continue to be aggressive on these issues regarding whether the use of covenants not to sue under Title VII violate an employee’s rights to the full enjoyment of protections afforded by Title VII. Including the above recommended carve-out language in severance agreements places an employer on defensible ground against any EEOC attack regarding the lawfulness of covenants not to sue used in severance agreements. For now, the Seventh Circuit’s recent decision is an important victory for employers in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin with regard to their ability to effectively use severance agreements to protect themselves from future suits by terminated employees without fear that such agreements may be considered retaliatory by the EEOC.