United States: Taking The EEOC At Its Word: Court Relies On Agency's Own Declaration In Granting Summary Judgment

Last Updated: June 10 2016
Article by Gerald L. Maatman Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: Court granted EEOC's partial motion for summary judgment on issue of pre-suit conciliation, finding that a declaration submitted by an EEOC official was sufficient evidence to show that the EEOC satisfied this obligation under Title VII.

In EEOC v. Dimensions Healthcare System, No. 15-2342 (D. Md. May 27, 2016), the Commission alleged that the defendant employer, Dimensions Healthcare System ("Dimensions"), unlawfully discriminated against one of its former employees on the basis of sex after it allegedly passed her over for a promotion due to her maternity leave. The EEOC filed two motions relative to the employer's affirmative defense based on the Commission's alleged failure to conciliate, including: (1) for partial summary judgment on the issue of pre-suit conciliation and (2) a motion to strike portions of Dimensions' response in opposition to the EEOC's summary judgment motion. On May 27, 2016, Judge Hazel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland granted both of the EEOC's motions.

The ruling, which heavily relied on the U.S. Supreme Court's Mach Mining v. EEOC decision from 2015, held that a declaration submitted by an EEOC official was sufficient evidence that the government satisfied its Title VII pre-suit conciliation obligations. For employers seeking to challenge whether the EEOC met its Title VII pre-suit obligations, this ruling is instructive regarding the very low burden of proof the government needs to block the defense.

Case Background

The complainant was employed as a "Team Lead" by Dimensions, where she oversaw and managed several team members and performed various human resources tasks. Id. at 2. The complainant took maternity leave between January and April of 2014. On or around October 2014, she learned that Dimensions had promoted a less-experienced male employee, who was her subordinate, to a manager position. After learning of the promotion, the complainant met with a Dimensions executive. The executive told the complainant that while she was considered for the position, the male employee was selected instead because the complainant had been "on maternity leave for a while." Id. Shortly thereafter, the complainant resigned and filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.

On May 11, the EEOC issued a reasonable cause determination to Dimensions. Id. at 2-3. According to the EEOC, the parties "engaged in communications" between May 11, 2015 and July 7, 2015 to provide Dimensions an opportunity to "remedy the discrimination practices described." Id. at 3. Thereafter declaring the "communications" unsuccessful, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against Dimensions on August 10, 2015. In its answer to the complaint, Dimensions asserted the affirmative defense that the EEOC's claims were barred to the extent it failed to properly conciliate, but later withdrew this defense.

While discovery was ongoing, the EEOC moved for partial summary judgement, arguing that Dimensions refused to stipulate that the EEOC fulfilled its pre-suit obligations. Id. at 4. Dimensions argued that there was a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the EEOC failed to conciliate prior to filing its lawsuit. The EEOC moved to strike the specific allegations contained within Dimensions' argument regarding the conciliation process. The Court granted the EEOC's motion for partial summary judgment and its motion to strike.

The Decision

The Court began its analysis by discussing the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Mach Mining, LLC v. EEOC, 135 S. Ct. 1645 (2015), which examined whether and to what extent a federal district court can review the EEOC's conciliation efforts. Id. at 5. Quoting Mach Mining, the Court noted that "[a] sworn affidavit from the EEOC stating that it has performed the [pre-suit] obligations . . . but that its efforts have failed will usually suffice." Id. at 7. Further, the Court noted that "this 'relatively barebones' review is all that a court is permitted to inquire into when considering a failure-to-conciliate defense." Id. Finally, discussing Mach Mining's holding that the district court in that case erred by not striking from the record descriptions of the conciliation process, the Court opined that "[c]onfidentiality in the conciliation process is necessary." Id.

Applied here, the Court noted that in support of its motion for partial summary judgment, the EEOC submitted the declaration of the Director of the Baltimore Field Office of the EEOC. Id. at 8. The declaration stated that after the EEOC determined there was reasonable cause to believe that Dimensions failed to promote the complainant because of her sex, it sent a letter of determination to Dimensions, and invited the employer to informally resolve the claim. Id. Further, the declaration explained that the EEOC "engaged in communications" with Dimensions and subsequently determined that further conciliation efforts would be unproductive. Id. at 8-9.

Granting the EEOC's motion for partial summary judgment, the Court found that "[t]his evidence is sufficient for the EEOC to satisfy its burden to establish that it 'endeavor[ed] to eliminate [the] alleged unlawful employment practice by informal methods' prior to filing suit." Id. at 9. Further, the "declaration establishes that the EEOC 'tr[ied] to engage the employer in some form of discussion' prior to filing suit." Id. In opposition, Dimensions argued that the EEOC did not try in earnest to reach a resolution prior to litigating the case. Rejecting this argument, the Court held that "[t]hose details . . . are not only irrelevant to the scope of this Court's review under Mach Mining, but also violate the confidentiality provision of Title VII." Id. Accordingly, the Court granted the EEOC's motion to strike the portions of Dimensions' briefing regarding what was "said or done" during the conciliation process. Id.

Implications For Employers

This ruling is a very-pro Commission interpretation of the Mach Mining decision. It holds that merely mailing a demand letter and stating a settlement demand is enough. The practical realities of negotiation and give-and-take in the conciliation process are ignored. In this respect, it parts company with previous rulings on the Mach Mining issue that view the give-and-take of conciliation in a practical manner [ see here].

As a result, this ruling gives employers an idea of how the EEOC will respond to challenges regarding whether it satisfied its Title VII pre-suit obligations: by submitting a declaration from one of its employees as to the mailing the determination, stating a settlement demand, and unilaterally deciding that further conciliation discussions are fruitless.

More importantly, this case illustrates how courts will likely find the EEOC's declarations to be "sufficient evidence." Id. Given that the EEOC only needs to submit a declaration to prove it satisfied its Title VII pre-suit obligations, employers can likely expect such conciliations to be far from fruitful if courts will now merely take the government at its word. Accordingly, employers engaged in future EEOC litigation likely have one less defense in their arsenal as a result of the Mach Mining decision.

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Gerald L. Maatman Jr.
 
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