The Lawletter Vol 37 No 12
Initially, under the civil rights laws the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") was not itself empowered to bring suit. In 1972, the law was amended to provide for suits brought directly by the EEOC, but only after an investigation; a determination of reasonable cause; and an attempt to resolve the matter by informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(5)(b). Since that time, the courts have been in agreement that a conciliation attempt is at least a condition precedent to suit by the EEOC. See, e.g., EEOC v. Radiator Specialty Co., 610 F.2d 178, 183 (4th Cir. 1979). However, as the court noted in a recent case, the circuits appear to be split as to the standard that should govern the court's inquiry into whether the conciliation obligation has been satisfied. EEOC v. St. Alexius Med. Ctr., No. 12 C 7646, 2012 WL 6590625, at *1-3 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 18, 2012).
In an early decision, the Tenth Circuit noted that the statutory language is mandatory and concluded that it was inconceivable that anything less than good-faith efforts is required. EEOC v. Zia Co., 582 F.2d 527, 532-33 (10th Cir. 1978). By the same token, it found that the court need not examine the details of offers and counteroffers between the parties. Although the court quoted language from the Conference Report on the law, which indicated that it was contemplated that the EEOC would "continue to make every effort to conciliate" and that it would file suit only "if conciliation proves to be impossible," id. at 533 (quoting 118 Cong. Rec. H1861 (Mar. 8, 1972)), the standard the court seemed to impose was simply a showing of "some effort" to conciliate and of "notice of the breakdown" of the effort. Id. at 532-33. The Sixth Circuit put forth a similar standard, adding that the EEOC is under no duty to pursue further conciliation if an employer rejects its offer. EEOC v. Keco Indus., 748 F.2d 1097, 1101-02 (6th Cir. 1984).
Both the Eleventh and Fifth Circuits have imposed a somewhat more specific and more stringent standard, requiring the EEOC to (1) outline for the employer the reasonable cause for its belief that the law has been violated; (2) offer the employer an opportunity for voluntary compliance; and (3) respond to the employer in a reasonable and flexible manner. EEOC v. Asplundh Tree Expert Co., 340 F.3d 1256, 1259 (11th Cir. 2003); EEOC v. Klingler Elec. Corp., 636 F.2d 104, 107 (5th Cir. 1981). These courts have found that the underlying question is the reasonableness and responsiveness of the EEOC, considering all the circumstances. The Fifth Circuit, in contrast to the Tenth and Sixth Circuits, specifically concluded that the court is required to make a thorough inquiry into the facts of the conciliation efforts in order to properly evaluate whether the EEOC has satisfied its duty.
Although the Ninth Circuit has not yet weighed in on the question and the district courts have variously applied both the deferential standard and the three-part test, in a recent case one district court focused on the duty to respond to the concerns of the employer in a reasonable and flexible manner and to provide the employer with an opportunity to confront all the issues. EEOC v. High Speed Enter., No. CV-08-01789-PHX-ROS, 2010 WL 8367452, at *5 (D. Ariz. Sept. 30, 2010). In order to satisfy those duties, the EEOC must also provide sufficient information about the basis of any charge such that the employer will be able to fully participate in the conciliation process. After reviewing the cases and noting that the Seventh Circuit, like the Ninth, had not yet chosen sides on the issue, the district court in St. Alexius Medical Center determined that it need not choose between the two standards, because under either standard the pleadings did not indisputably establish that the EEOC had satisfied its obligation. Accordingly, the court held that the EEOC was not entitled to judgment on the pleadings, which was the sole issue before the court.