Monday, February 23, 2015

4th Circuit eviscerates EEOC in background screening case

Nearly a year ago, the 6th Circuit sent a strong message to the EEOC in dismissing a case regarding its “expert” witness retained to challenge an employer’s use of credit checks. Last Friday, the 4th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a similar case in which the EEOC used the same expert. In EEOC v. Freeman [pdf], the 4th Circuit did not mince its words:

The EEOC wields significant power, some of which stems from the agency’s broad discretion to investigate, conciliate, and enforce, and some of which derives from public actions that exert influence outside the courtroom. The Commission’s actions can be also expected to have broader consequences than those of an ordinary litigant given the “vast disparity of resources between the government and private litigants.”

In deciding when to act, the Commission must balance sometimes-competing responsibilities. On the one hand, the agency must serve the employee’s interest by preventing an employer from “engaging in any unlawful employment practice” under Title VII. On the other hand, “the EEOC owes duties to employers as well: a duty reasonably to investigate charges, a duty to conciliate in good faith, and a duty to cease enforcement attempts after learning that an action lacks merit.” That the EEOC failed in the exercise of this second duty in the case now before us would be restating the obvious.

The EEOC must be constantly vigilant that it does not abuse the power conferred upon it by Congress, as its “significant resources, authority, and discretion” will affect all “those outside parties they investigate or sue.” Government “has a more unfettered hand over those it either serves or investigates, and it is thus incumbent upon public officials, high and petty, to maintain some appreciation for the extent of the burden that their actions may impose.” The Commission’s conduct in this case suggests that its exercise of vigilance has been lacking. It would serve the agency well in the future to reconsider how it might better discharge the responsibilities delegated to it or face the consequences for failing to do so.


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