April 29, 2015

Supreme Court Decides Mach Mining, LLC v. EEOC

On April 29, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Mach Mining, LLC v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Court held that the EEOC’s compliance with its statutory obligation to attempt to informally conciliate claims of unlawful workplace practices before filing suit is subject to judicial review, but that the scope of review is narrow because the extent and format of the conciliation efforts lie within the EEOC’s discretion.

Before the EEOC files suit over an alleged unlawful employment practice, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires it to “endeavor to eliminate” the practice “by informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion.” After investigating a charge claiming that Mach Mining had discriminated against a job applicant on the basis of sex, the EEOC found that there was reasonable cause to believe that discrimination occurred. In the letter announcing that determination, the EEOC invited Mach Mining and the charging party to engage in conciliation efforts, and promised to contact the parties soon. Later, the EEOC sent Mach Mining a second letter stating that conciliation efforts had occurred and failed, then filed suit in federal court. It is not clear what conciliation efforts, if any, occurred between the first and second letter. Mach Mining argued in response that the required conciliation efforts had not actually occurred. The district court agreed with Mach Mining, but the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed and held that the EEOC’s compliance with its conciliation obligation cannot be reviewed by the courts.

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed, holding that Title VII establishes a requirement for attempts to conciliate and that courts can enforce that requirement. The statutory requirement, wrote the Court, is that the EEOC “must tell the employer about the claim — essentially, what practice has harmed which person or class — and must provide the employer with an opportunity to discuss the matter in an effort to achieve voluntary compliance.” This is a “manageable standard” that courts can enforce. Nevertheless, because Title VII gives the EEOC “expansive discretion” as to the extent and format of the conciliation, courts may engage in only a “relatively barebones review” of the EEOC’s efforts. They may inquire only whether the EEOC “inform[ed] the employer about the specific allegation,” and whether it “tr[ied] 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.” This review “looks only to whether the EEOC attempted to confer about a charge, and not to what happened (i.e., statements made or positions taken) during those discussions.” The Court noted that a sworn affidavit from the EEOC that the proper conciliation efforts occurred “will usually suffice,” but that if an employer provides competing evidence indicating that “the EEOC did not provide the requisite information about the charge or attempt to engage in a discussion about conciliating the claim, a court must conduct the factfinding necessary to decided that limited dispute.”

Justice Kagan wrote the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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