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EEOC's Bias Case Against Sterling Jewelers Revived By 2nd Circuit

The Second Circuit revived a Title VII gender discrimination case that the EEOC filed nationwide against Sterling Jewelers, Inc. The circuit court determined Title VII only allows courts to review whether the EEOC conducted a pre-suit investigation, not delve into the adequacy of that investigation.

Pre-Suit Investigation Requirements

Sterling Jewelers is the largest fine jewelry company in the United States. The EEOC alleged that Sterling engaged in a practice of nationwide pay and promotion discrimination based on gender. The district court judge determined the EEOC was not properly before the court for failing to fulfill certain statutory obligations. The agency is statutorily obligated to conduct a pre-litigation investigation before filing suit against an employer.

The magistrate judge found there was no evidence the EEOC investigated a nationwide class, and the district court agreed. The Second Circuit disagreed in its first decision on the issue of proper scope of the agency’s pre-suit review.

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Title VII is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. The law generally applies to employers with 15 or more employees. Courts can only engage in a narrow, relatively bare-bones review of whether the EEOC satisfies its pre-litigation conciliation obligation. Before the EEOC can bring a Title VII enforcement suit, the following requirements must be met:

  • Receive and give the employer notice of a formal discrimination charge,
  • Investigate the charge,
  • Make a determination on whether or not there is reasonable cause to believe the law was violated, and
  • Make a good-faith effort to conciliate the charge.

Investigatory Free Reign

Congress empowered federal courts to review whether the agency has satisfied pre-suit obligations. The Second Circuit panel concluded judicial review of EEOC investigations are “similarly limited” to the relatively bare-bones conciliation review. These nationwide discrimination claims require the EEOC to show it looked into whether there was a basis for claiming so much bias. However, the circuit court held the agency does not have to consider in detail the investigation process or evidence the EEOC found.

U.S. Circuit Judge John M. Walker Jr. said, “The sole question for judicial review is whether the EEOC conducted an investigation,” not the investigation’s extent or adequacy.

“Employers facing investigations by the EEOC may not be able to assert the defense that the EEOC’s investigation into the employee’s claims was inadequate," said attorney Diana Uhimov of Allyn & Fortuna in New York.

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The appeals court’s decision asserts extensive judicial review depletes scarce resources and delays and diverts EEOC enforcement actions from furthering the purpose behind Title VII: eliminating discrimination in the workplace. Going forward, it appears courts will allow autonomy in the EEOC’s investigation methods in the discrimination context. If the EEOC is not required to do a thorough investigation before bringing nationwide litigation, employers will begin to lose the opportunity to resolve complaints in the investigatory stage.

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