The Chicago Employment Law Blog

What Does the EEOC Have to Do Before it Can Fight Discrimination?

Judge Ruben Castillo, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, released an opinion last week that might just lead to the Supreme Court in a few years. The case stems from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's role as guardian of the discriminated and disabled.

One of the EEOC's strategies to combat employment discrimination is to file class action lawsuits, which combine the claims of dozens or more employees into a single trial. This allows the court to redress the claims of many people with less expenses for both the EEOC and the employer.

The local case, brought here in Chicago, involved claims that United Road Towing did not provide proper accommodations for disabled employees. The question was, does the EEOC have to identify every possible claimant in a class-action?

Often in class-action lawsuits, such as drug or defective product lawsuits, plaintiffs are not known until after the lawsuit is concluded. You'll then see commercials at two in the morning or get a letter in the mail describing your rights in regards to defective vaginal mesh or Costco gas pumps.

Though ordinary class-action lawsuits may not identify all possible plaintiffs, the EEOC may have different requirements. Because the EEOC is a federal administrative agency, it has to follow whatever rules Congress prescribed when it created them.

This is where the Circuit Courts differ. Circuits, by the way, are groupings of federal courts in different geographical areas. Chicago is part of the Seventh Circuit.

Circuit Court Map

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Judge Castillo's opinion stated that courts should not review the administrative agency's findings that a lawsuit is appropriate. Doing so would require two-stage trials on every EEOC class action. Stage one would involve whether or not the EEOC did its job in pretrial. Stage two would involve the actual claims. This is something Judge Castillo felt was not the court's job. He cited the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, who had the same opinion.

The Eighth Circuit thought differently in a similar case. In that case, the EEOC attempted to bring a class-action on behalf of potentially hundreds of employees that had faced sexual harassment. The appeals court in that case stated that the EEOC was required by Congress to investigate all claims and attempt a settlement of the claim before litigating. To truly attempt to settle, they would need to identify the parties. Otherwise, the harassed could be two aggrieved parties or two hundred.

So, to recap, the Eighth Circuit wants to review the EEOC's pretrial investigations. The Sixth Circuit does not. Judge Castillo also does not, but he could still be overruled by his superior appeals court, the Seventh Circuit.

When the various Circuit Courts disagree on an important issue with far reaching consequences, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) can take the case and rule for the entire country. Think of the Federal court system like a hierarchy. SCOTUS is the big boss. Circuit Courts are middle management. District Courts are the everyday employees.

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