Seventh Circuit Says Attempted Withdrawal of Charge of Discrimination ‘Does Not Diminish Agency’s Authority to Investigate’
CHICAGO — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in a decision by Chief Judge Frank H. Easterbrook, Friday ordered a District Court to enforce a subpoena issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The court ruled that the EEOC had the authority to refuse to allow an individual to withdraw a charge of discrimination, and, therefore, to enforce a subpoena against an employer and to pursue an investigation of discrimination by that employer, Watkins Motor Lines, Inc. Watkins had entered into a private settlement agreement with a rejected job applicant who had filed the charge of discrimination which gave rise to the EEOC investigation. EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc, (7th Cir. No. 08-2483, C.J. Easterbrook, 1/23/2009).
The Seventh Circuit’s decision overturned a March 2008 decision by U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer in which she dismissed the EEOC’s application to enforce a subpoena against Watkins, a Florida-based trucking company, which the EEOC had filed in July 2007. The trucking company had reached a private settlement with its rejected job applicant conditioned upon his withdrawing the charge of discrimination he had previously filed with the EEOC.
Judge Pallmeyer ruled that EEOC’s refusal to permit withdrawal of that charge and to shut down its administrative investigation of a possible pattern of race discrimination against the applicant and others in the same position was “arbitrary.” She then dismissed the EEOC’s application to enforce the subpoena for documents, concluding that the EEOC could not ask a court to enforce a subpoena when it should have allowed the charging party to withdraw his charge. EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc. (N.D. Illinois No. 07 C 4115, J. Pallmeyer, 3/26/2008).
Writing for the Court of Appeals, Chief Judge Easterbrook said, “The Northern District of Illinois is the right tribunal, this is the right time, and these are the right litigants to resolve the question of whether [the rejected job applicant’s] request to withdraw his charge ends the EEOC’s authority to investigate.”
In rejecting the lower court’s reasoning and resolving the issue in favor of the EEOC, Chief Judge Easterbrook went on to write, “The problem with the argument is that it allows litigants to achieve their settlement by injuring other unrepresented persons. Many a defendant would love to decapitate a class . . . by paying off the sole representative plaintiff and thus avoiding liability to all other class members. . . That was what Watkins tried to do here . . . The agency and the judiciary are not obliged to abet this strategy by preferring [the rejected applicant’s] interests over those of other workers … A charging party’s change of mind does not diminish the agency’s authority to investigate on its own behalf.”
EEOC General Counsel Ronald S. Cooper said this morning in Washington, “We at the EEOC are very, very satisfied with the unequivocal decision of the Seventh Circuit in this case which we view as entirely consistent with established precedent. This is one more important reaffirmation of what we have always understood to be our authority to investigate and challenge employment discrimination on both class and individual bases. That was what we did in both the Waffle House and the Sidley & Austin cases which the Seventh Circuit noted in today’s decision, that was what we were doing here, and that is what we expect to continue to do.”
John Hendrickson, EEOC regional attorney in Chicago, said, “Some recalcitrant employers and their counsel attempt to avoid accountability for employment discrimination through adoption of what they consider effective counter-strategies. Such strategies may include filing lawsuits against those who complain of discrimination, conducting endless discovery so as to draw out litigation for years, and, as in this case, getting one or two possible victims of the discrimination which may have been visited upon a class to cut a quick and often cheap deal. Those strategies are, in the final analysis, never really effective against the EEOC. We’re pleased to see that point made once again made so forcefully in this important decision by the Seventh Circuit.”
The EEOC was represented in the District Court proceedings in Chicago by Hendrickson and by Supervisory Trial Attorney Gregory Gochanour and Trial Attorney Ethan Cohen. The agency was represented in the proceedings before the Court of Appeals by Assistant General Counsel Carolyn Wheeler and Appellate Attorney Gail Coleman of the Office of General Counsel in Washington.
The EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal laws prohibiting discrimination in employment based on race, color, sex (including sexual harassment and pregnancy), religion, national origin, age, disability, and retaliation. Further information about the Commission is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.
This page was last modified on February 3, 2009.
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