The right of American workers to fight against discrimination and harassment in a court of law is now more protected than ever thanks to a landmark ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employees may sue their employer for discrimination in a court of law if the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) first engages in conciliation efforts on their behalf. This means that the EEOC will investigate a charge, and if it determines it has merit, will work with the company to find some sort of restitution, whether that's rehiring an illegally terminated employee, establishing new anti-discrimination guidelines, or agreeing to a financial settlement. If the EEOC finds the conciliation efforts unsuccessful, a lawsuit can be filed against the company.
A Win for American Workers
In 2010, after it failed to reach a resolution with Mach Mining in Southern Illinois, the EEOC took the company to court for its alleged refusal to hire female employees. In response, Mach Mining denied the discrimination and requested that the suit be dismissed as it felt that the EEOC inadequately conciliated with the company before filing the lawsuit, and therefore the case had no legs.
In the eyes of other Circuit Courts, the law has most often been on the side of employers in regards to failure of conciliation, allowing the lawsuits against them to be delayed or dropped altogether. In many instances, employers were given more time and information to defend themselves if the case went to trial.
However, Mach Mining was in for a surprise. The Seventh Circuit disagreed with the rulings from its fellow Circuit Courts. The three-judge panel decided that under current law, employers cannot challenge or seek to dismiss a case of discrimination if the companies find the EEOC conciliation efforts to be inadequate or lacking. Therefore, Mach Mining could be brought to trial.
Under Title VII, federal law leaves all discretion on conciliation to the EEOC. There is are no legal guidelines that establish or prove what is considered “adequate” in regards to meeting with a company, how long the process should take, and what requirements need to be met. All judgment is left to the EEOC, and restitution must be agreed upon by both the employer and employee if the charge is considered settled. In its ruling, the Seventh Court said the statutory language in the law was clear and therefore concluded, “It would be more difficult for Congress to have packed more deference to agency decision-making into so few lines of text.”
What the Seventh Circuit Decision Means for Employees and Employers
The decision gives employees more leverage in securing the restitution they deserve if conciliation fails to reach a settlement that is satisfactory to both the victim of discrimination and the employer. If a lawsuit is necessary to protect the rights of the worker, his or her employer will have a difficult time using failed conciliation as a defense.
In addition, because of the decision, Courts are more open to examining cases of workplace discrimination, and in turn, have come down harder on employers who break the law. With the EEOC on board, the doors are open even wider for lawsuits centered on discrimination and harassment, giving victims the opportunity to face the individuals and companies who have threatened their careers.