On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court released an important decision concerning the EEOC’s obligation to engage in pre-suit conciliation efforts under Title VII. The decision of Mach Mining v. EEOC, No. 13-1019, 2015 WL 1913911 (Apr. 29, 2015), involves a woman who filed an EEOC charge against Mach Mining, LLC, claiming that she was denied employment as a coal miner based on her gender. Following an investigation, the EEOC found reasonable cause to believe that Mach Mining had discriminated against the woman and other similarly situated women in their hiring process. The EEOC sent a letter to both parties informing them of its decision and advising them that it would “contact [them] to begin the conciliation process.” Id. at *3. Approximately one year later, the EEOC sent a second letter to Mach Mining announcing that “such conciliation efforts…have occurred and have been unsuccessful.” Id. The EEOC then sued Mach Mining in federal court.
In its answer, Mach Mining raised the EEOC’s failure to “conciliat[e] in good faith” as an affirmative defense. Id. The EEOC moved for summary judgment on this ground, claiming that its conciliation efforts are not subject to judicial review. Mach Mining argued that the court was authorized to consider the reasonableness of the EEOC’s efforts. The trial court agreed with Mach Mining, and the EEOC immediately appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. The Seventh Circuit reversed, finding that the EEOC’s statutory conciliation obligation was not subject to judicial review. Mach Mining appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari to “address whether and to what extent such an attempt to conciliate is subject to judicial consideration.” Id. at *4.
Writing on behalf of a unanimous Supreme Court, Justice Kagan found that the EEOC’s conciliation efforts are subject to judicial review. She agreed with the EEOC that Title VII “provides [the agency] with wide latitude over the conciliation process[,]” but concluded that “Congress has not left everything to the [EEOC].” Id. at *6 (emphasis in original). Instead, Justice Kagan wrote that “[a]bsent such review, the Commission’s compliance with the law would rest in the Commission’s hands alone.” Id.
The Court then established the following standard of review for conciliation efforts:
the EEOC must inform the employer about the specific allegation, as the Commission typically does in a letter announcing its determination of “reasonable cause.” Ibid. 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.
Id. at *9.
The Mach Mining decision is a significant victory for employers. Not only does it require the EEOC to comply with Title VII’s pre-suit requirements, but it serves as a reminder that the EEOC cannot ignore the rules, regulations, and obligations set for the agency by Congress.