Supreme Court Sets Standard for EEOC Conciliation Efforts

On Wednesday, April 29, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its unanimous decision in Mach Mining LLC v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, addressing the issue of the level of judicial review allowed regarding the EEOC’s duty to conciliate charges of discrimination prior to litigation. We have discussed this decision in this blog from its early stages (here, here, and here), and the Supreme Court has finally proven what we said in July 2013, that the EEOC’s conciliation efforts are indeed subject to judicial review, to be true. However, the Supreme Court did not choose to hold the EEOC to the “good faith” standard that many employers had hoped for or the mere facial examination that the EEOC had championed, instead striking a balance between the two by limiting the court’s review to a “narrow” one. In rendering its decision, the Supreme Court recognized the EEOC’s extensive discretion to determine the kind and amount of communication necessary with any employer to satisfy its statutory duty to engage in conciliation efforts prior to filing suit. Under this new standard, a court’s review is limited to reviewing only that the EEOC gave the employer notice of the charge and an opportunity to achieve voluntary compliance.

It has always been the law under Title VII that, prior to the EEOC suing an employer for discrimination, it must first engage in conciliation. Not until after efforts at conciliation have failed may the EEOC file a lawsuit in federal court. The Supreme Court held that Congress meant to allow judicial review of administrative actions, including the duty to attempt to conciliate. The Court obviously rejected the EEOC’s “just trust us” method of review.

According to the Supreme Court, in order to show that the EEOC has met its statutory burden to conciliate, it must notify the employer of the claim and give the employer an opportunity to discuss the matter. The judicial review is limited to those elements. Simply, the EEOC must inform the employer about the specific discrimination alleged by describing what the employer has done and which employees have suffered. The EEOC must then try to engage the employer in a discussion in order to give it a chance to remedy the alleged discrimination, although the EEOC is still allowed substantial flexibility in the process. The Court found that delving into whether or not the EEOC had conciliated in good faith conflicted with the latitude Title VII gives the EEOC, imposed extra procedural requirements, and was in conflict with Title VII’s protection of the confidentiality of conciliation efforts. It is still within the discretion of the EEOC to accept a settlement or bring a lawsuit. Typically, a sworn affidavit from the EEOC that it has performed these obligations will be sufficient.

If the employer alleges through concrete evidence, either through its own affidavit or otherwise, that the EEOC has failed in its duty to conciliate, courts are allowed to engage in necessary fact-finding to decide the issue. If a court decides that the EEOC did not meet its statutory duty to conciliate matters prior to filing suit, the appropriate remedy is to stay the action, rather than dismissal, and order the EEOC to undertake the mandated conciliation efforts.

Although the EEOC will likely still be aggressive in its litigation efforts, the Supreme Court’s decision will ensure that the EEOC must engage in some form of articulable conciliation efforts, even if it is just a minimal effort, before commencing suit against an employer. Employers who believe that the EEOC has not met its statutory obligation to engage in conciliation will still have, thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision, the “failure-to-conciliate” defense in its quiver.