U.S. Supreme Court Holds that EEOC Conciliation Efforts are Subject to Limited Judicial Review
I. Procedural Background and Party Positions
After investigating a gender discrimination claim against Mach Mining, the EEOC determined that reasonable cause existed to believe that the company had engaged in unlawful hiring practices. The EEOC sent a letter inviting Mach Mining and the claimant to participate in informal conciliation proceedings. About a year later, the EEOC sent Mach Mining another letter stating that it had determined that conciliation efforts had failed – pursuant to the statutory mandate that conciliation discussions remain private, the evidence record did not reflect what negotiations, if any, took place in the interim. The EEOC then sued Mach Mining in federal court.
In its responsive pleadings, Mach Mining asserted, as an affirmative defense, that the EEOC had not attempted to conciliate in good faith. The EEOC responded by arguing: (1) that conciliation efforts were not subject to judicial review; and (2) that the two letters sent to Mach Mining provided sufficient proof that the EEOC had fulfilled its statutory duty to conciliate. The district court agreed with Mach Mining, holding that the adequacy of the EEOC's conciliation efforts was subject to judicial review. The EEOC appealed, and the Seventh Circuit reversed the District Court, finding that the EEOC's statutory obligation to conciliate was unreviewable. Mach Mining then sought review in the United States Supreme Court, andcertiorari was granted.
The parties presented unwavering and starkly opposite arguments to the Supreme Court. The EEOC's position was that Title VII allotted complete discretion to the Commission; therefore, its conciliation efforts were not subject to judicial review. The only concession made by the EEOC was that, if the Court were to deem the conciliation process reviewable, then the EEOC's letters to Mach Mining provide sufficient evidence of the Commission's compliance with the statutory mandate to conciliate – as long as the EEOC issues two letters, courts have no authority to consider any other evidence regarding the conciliation process. Mach Mining, on the other hand, argued that courts should be able to employ the NLRA's standard of "good-faith bargaining" with regard to the EEOC's conciliation efforts, which would require courts to delve deeply into the facts surrounding each and every conciliation process.
II. The Opinion
In a unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Kagan, the Court held that "a court may review whether the EEOC satisfied its statutory obligation to attempt conciliation before filing suit. But [the Court found] that the scope of that review is narrow, thus recognizing the EEOC's extensive discretion to determine the kind and amount of communication with an employer appropriate in any given case." Mach Mining, LLC v. EEOC, 135 S.Ct. 1645, 1649 (2015). Sounds good in theory, right? To unpack this holding, one must look at each of the issues addressed by the Court and, more importantly, the issues that were not addressed.
First, the Court had to dispose of the EEOC's argument, and Seventh Circuit's holding, that the EEOC's conciliation efforts were not judicially reviewable. To do so, the Court cited case law precedent that applies a "strong presumption" favoring judicial review of administrative action. See Bowen v. Michigan Academy of Family Physicians, 476 U.S. 667, 670 (1986). The Court reasoned that, because the EEOC's participation in conciliation efforts is a mandatory prerequisite to filing a lawsuit under Title VII, courts must be able to exercise some oversight in the process. As the Court stated:
Yes, [Title VII] provides the EEOC with wide latitude over the conciliation process, and that feature becomes significant when we turn to defining the proper scope of judicial review. But no, Congress has not left everything to the Commission.
Mach Mining, 135 S.Ct. at 1652 (emphasis in original) (citations omitted). The Court's view was predicated on the idea of culpability:
Absent such review, the Commission's compliance with the law would rest in the Commission's hands alone. We need not doubt the EEOC's trustworthiness, or its fidelity to law, to shy away from that result. We need only know—and know that Congress knows—that legal lapses and violations occur, and especially so when they have no consequence.
Id. at 1652-53.
Having determined that the EEOC's conciliation efforts are subject to judicial review, what, then, is the scope of such review? The Court denied each side's proposed standard. First, the Court denied the EEOC's argument for "the most minimalist form of review imaginable," reasoning that "a court needs more than the two bookend letters the Government proffers" in order to verify the Commission's compliance with Title VII. Id. at 1653. Likewise, the Court rejected Mach Mining's proposed framework, similar to that used in the NLRA, because the NLRA and Title VII serve different purposes. While Title VII is focused strictly on results – to eliminate unlawful discrimination in the workplace – the NLRA aims to create a "sphere of bargaining" in which both sides are obligated to bargain fairly. Id. at 1654. To treat Title VII conciliation like labor negotiations, the Court held, would be to adopt rules that "do not properly apply to a law that treats the conciliation process not as end in itself, but only as a tool to redress workplace discrimination."Id. The Court additionally noted that Mach Mining's proposed scope of judicial review would undermine the EEOC's discretion and confidentiality mandated by Title VII. See id. at 1655.
The Court held that the appropriate scope of review enforces Title VII's requirements, "the EEOC afford the employer a chance to discuss and rectify a specified discriminatory practice—but goes no further." Id. at 1653. As the Court explains:
[Title VII] demands…that the EEOC communicate in some way (through "conference, conciliation, and persuasion") about an "alleged unlawful employment practice" in an 'endeavor' to achieve an employer's voluntary compliance. That means the EEOC must inform the employer about the specific allegation, as the Commission typically does in a letter announcing its determination of 'reasonable cause.' Such notice properly describes both what the employer has done and which employees (or what class of employees) have suffered as a result. And the EEOC must try to engage the employer in some form of discussion (whether written or oral), so as to give the employer an opportunity to remedy the allegedly discriminatory practice. Judicial review of those requirements (and nothing else) ensures that the Commission complies with the statute.
Id. at 1655-56. To show, then, that the EEOC did not comply with Title VII during conciliation, an employer must provide credible evidence (typically by sworn affidavit) indicating that the EEOC "did not provide the requisite information about the charge or attempt to engage in a discussion about conciliating the claim," which would then allow a court to conduct the necessary factual inquiry to decide the dispute.
III. Lingering Issues
So, the Court has defined Title VII conciliation as a tool to remedy workplace discrimination (nothing new there). What is interesting, however, is that the Court inferentially mandated that the remedy of the allegedly discriminatory practice be the beacon of conciliation. How does that work? Let's say, for example, that Mach Mining had said during conciliation, "Okay, EEOC, we know there is a problem. We will hire the claimant, pay her the wages she would have earned up to her first day of work and adjust our hiring practices and facilities accordingly." By the Court's ruling, this would seem to be a sufficient offer to remedy the alleged discrimination. But, what if the EEOC rejects this proposal? What if the EEOC wants to make an example out of Mach Mining? Can they do that? Sure they can. The Court does not disturb the extensive discretion allotted to the EEOC in determining a satisfactory settlement or in determining its motive for accepting or rejecting settlement. As you can see, although the Court's holding has established the allowance of judicial review, it does not allow courts to interpret the rationality of the EEOC's positions. Courts may only determine whether the Commission went through the proper procedures and put the employer on notice of the claim. For a results-oriented statute, as the Court described Title VII, this scope of judicial review does not seem to facilitate the results that Title VII theoretically endeavors to achieve.