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A Message from Chair Janet Dhillon on the Passing of Justice John Paul Stevens

Post from Chair Janet Dhillon - July 2019

Eric Baker, a grill operator at a West Columbia, S.C., Waffle House, was fired after he suffered a seizure.  He filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and the agency agreed, suing the restaurant chain for disability discrimination. 

However, before he was hired, Baker had signed an agreement requiring all employ­ment disputes to be settled by binding arbitration.  Under the Federal Arbitration Act, Waffle House petitioned to stay the EEOC's suit and compel arbitration. The district court did not stay the action. The court of appeals concluded that the arbitration agree­ment between Baker and Waffle House did not foreclose the enforcement action be­cause the EEOC was not a party to the contract, but had independent statutory auth­ority to bring suit in any federal district court where venue was proper.

The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the EEOC's statutory enforcement powers unambiguously authorized the agency to obtain the relief that it sought if it could prove its case. The court further noted that no language existed to suggest that an arbitration agreement between private parties materially changed the EEOC's statutory function or the remedies otherwise available.

"The Supreme Court's decision reaffirms the significance of the EEOC's public enforcement role," said EEOC then-Chair Cari Dominguez. "The ruling embraces the view that, as the agency entrusted to enforce the federal statutes prohibiting discrim­in­ation in the workplace, the EEOC is not constrained in any way by a private arbitration agreement to which the EEOC is not a party."

Arbitration agreements do not preclude the EEOC from seeking victim-specific relief in court.  That key principle has enabled us to help many more discrimination victims across the country. 

The majority opinion was written by Justice John Paul Stevens, who was appointed to the high court by President Ford in 1975.  Over the years, Stevens became the very model of judicial independence in thought and deed.  His maverick brilliance became as distinctive as his famous bow ties.   

Stevens issued a plethora of wisdom from the bench over the decades, but it's his work on civil rights that we especially remember here. 

Stevens had the longest lifespan of the 114 justices in United States Supreme Court history, and he kept writing commentaries for the media on current legal issues and events after he left the bench.  Earlier this year, at the remarkable age of 99, he published his third book, The Making of a Justice: Reflections on My First 94 Years.

John Paul Stevens passed away on July 16.  He left behind a remarkable legacy for us to respect and honor.