Supreme Court Issues Decision in Mach Mining Case
By: Megan J. Muoio, May 4, 2015
On Wednesday, April 29, 2015, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Mach Mining LLC v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which was argued before the Court in January 2015. The unanimous decision, written by Justice Kagan, was a win for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in its efforts to bring litigation after engaging in conciliation with employers and permitted federal courts a narrow review of the conciliation process.
A woman filed a charge of discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against Mach Mining with the EEOC, claiming that Mach Mining had refused to hire her as a coal miner because of her gender. As part of its investigation of the alleged unlawful workplace practice, the EEOC initially received the charge from the woman and engaged in an investigation of the Mach Mining’s practices. The EEOC found reasonable cause to believe that the charge had merit, and was thus obligated by statute to attempt to “eliminate [the] alleged unlawful employment practice by informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion.” The EEOC, in its discretion, could accept a settlement if the conciliation with Mach Mining was successful. In this case, the EEOC engaged in the required conciliation for approximately one year before communicating to Mach Mining that its conciliation efforts had been unsuccessful. In 2011, the EEOC filed suit against Mach Mining and alleged that the precondition to filing suit had been fulfilled. Mach Mining, in contrast, claimed as an affirmative defense to the action that the EEOC had failed to conciliate in good faith and thus was barred from bringing suit.
The District Court for the Southern District of Illinois sided with Mach Mining by holding that it had the power to review the EEOC’s conciliation efforts and investigate whether the EEOC made a “sincere and reasonable effort to negotiate.” This standard, which was advanced by Mach Mining at oral argument before the Supreme Court, would entail a searching inquiry by the courts into the EEOC’s practices and would grant the EEOC nearly no deference in its efforts. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and found for the EEOC by holding that conciliation was not subject to judicial review, which would grant the EEOC total discretion and would totally preserve any confidentially-disclosed information from the conciliation process.
On appeal to the Supreme Court, the parties staked out diametrically-opposed positions – either no deference for the EEOC or no judicial review of the EEOC’s conciliation. In its decision, the Court refused to take either extreme position, instead setting out a middle ground. The Court reviewed the statutory framework and found that, although the EEOC was provided significant leeway in pursuing the conciliation process, the EEOC was still required to meet certain minimum standards in doing so. First, the EEOC must communicate information about the claim to the employer so that the employer is aware of the practice that is being investigated. Second, the EEOC must provide the employer with the opportunity to discuss the matter and achieve voluntary compliance. The EEOC must meet these minimum standards and the courts are empowered to review the EEOC efforts to hold the agency accountable. After meeting the minimum standards set by the Court, the EEOC has considerable deference in determining how far it should go in the conciliation process.
The Court rejected Mach Mining’s argument that the EEOC must take specific steps in its conciliation efforts. Instead, the Court held that the scope of the judicial review would be “barebones” and would only seek to discover whether the EEOC communicated the allegedly discriminatory action being investigated and engaged the employer in an effort get the employer to voluntarily remedy the practice. In most cases, the Court held, a sworn affidavit from the EEOC would suffice and end the court’s review.
This decision, while not a total win for the EEOC, which sought the complete discretion to conduct conciliation without any judicial oversight, is still a defeat for employers. Had the Supreme Court required a searching and thorough judicial review the EEOC’s efforts, employers would have obtained a significant weapon with which to fend off or delay lawsuits brought by the EEOC. Employers would also have been put in a stronger negotiating position with respect to the EEOC if the agency was required to make objectively reasonable offers and avoid take-it-or-leave it conciliation efforts. Instead, as a result of the Court’s decision in Mach Mining, the EEOC maintains its dominant position in the conciliation process with employers going forward.