Thursday, June 12, 2014

U.S. Chamber of Commerce challenges EEOC over its “unreasonable” enforcement tactics

I’ve written before about federal courts taking the EEOC to task for its overly aggressive litigation tactics (for example, here, here, here, here, and here).

Earlier this week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce published a 25-page report [pdf] (h/t Wall Street Journal), in which it challenged the EEOC on its “unreasonable” enforcement tactics. According to the Chamber, its analysis of the EEOC’s enforcement and litigation strategies “reveals an agency which often advances questionable enforcement tactics and legal theories.” For example:

  • EEOC will pursue investigations despite clear evidence that any alleged adverse action was not discriminatory—such as terminating an employee caught on videotape leaving pornography around the workplace.
  • EEOC investigators propose large settlement figures, only to dismiss the case entirely upon rejection of the offer, making the whole basis of the original settlement offer intellectually dishonest and turning a supposedly neutral investigation into nothing more than a “shakedown.”
  • A federal case in which the judge criticized EEOC for using a “sue-first, prove later” approach. 
  • A federal case brought by EEOC which the judge described as “one of those cases where the complaint turned out to be without foundation from the beginning.” 
  • A federal case in which the judge criticized EEOC for continuing “to litigate the … claims after it became clear there were no grounds upon which to proceed,” describing the EEOC’s claims as “frivolous, unreasonable and without foundation.”
The report also challenges the EEOC’s amicus program, in which, according to the Chamber, federal courts rejected the agency’s legal interpretations (premised on its formal enforcement guidance and other policy statements) approximately 80% of the time.

From all of this data, the Chamber concludes:

Combating discrimination in the workplace is a worthy goal and one that the Chamber supports. However, … EEOC’s abusive enforcement tactics can no longer be ignored. While some federal judges are pushing back in some cases, EEOC clearly has not received the message. Moreover, relying on judges as the final check on EEOC enforcement is often a case of “too little, too late”: by that time, employers have already spent significant time and resources defending themselves against unmeritorious allegations. In other words, even when employers win, they lose.… 
What’s more, the courts’ rejection of EEOC’s underlying regulatory guidance leaves employers searching as to where to find accurate, reliable guidance on their legal obligations under federal non-discrimination laws. And, with a fully staffed Commission several new guidance positions are possible on a broad range of topics including: wellness plans, reasonable accommodations, pregnancy and national origin discrimination and credit-related background checks.
While the entirety of the 25-page report is intellectually interesting to employers, it doesn’t mean a hill of beans if the EEOC sues you. As we all know, lawsuits are expensive. It could cost you millions of dollars to prove the EEOC wrong. I doubt you want to spend millions defending one lawsuit? So what are you to do? Sadly, you are to do what the EEOC says, or risk ending up in the agency’s money-vacuum crosshairs.

Yet, I believe that the EEOC does not care how many times federal courts rebuke its litigation tactics—that the mere threat of an expensive enforcement action is sufficient deterrent for the agency to put forth its enforcement agenda. For example, is the EEOC correct that credit and criminal checks always have a disparate impact on minorities, no matter why an employer uses them? Probably not. But, the alternative is a potential million-dollar lawsuit. The agency is making law by the threat of lawsuits. This legislation-by-extortion is dirty pool, and undermines all of the good the agency does to promote equal rights for all in employment.