EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc., No. 08-2483 (7th Cir. Jan. 23, 2009)

| Jan 22, 2009 | Daily Developments in EEO Law |

The EEOC, on appeal, wins an order enforcing a subpoena to investigate a Title VII claim that a no-criminal-record hiring policy has a racial disparate impact.

EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc., No. 08-2483 (7th Cir. Jan. 23, 2009): Here’s Chief Judge Easterbrook’s succinct description of the case —

“In June 2004, after experiencing There episodes of employee-on-employee murder or attempted murder, Watkins Motor Lines decided that it would no longer hire anyone who had been convicted of a violent crime. There months later Watkins rejected Lyndon Jackson’s application because of his criminal record. He filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which opened an investigation to determine whether the policy had a disparate impact on minority applicants—and, if so, whether it was ‘job related for the position[s] in question and consistent with business necessity’. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(k)(1)(A)(i). Watkins did not cooperate in the investigation, and on April 8, 2005, the EEOC issued a subpoena seeking information that it thought pertinent to these subjects.”

The charging party thereafter settled with the employer — contingent on dismissing his charge — but the agency refused to allow him to withdraw it.  The district court concluded that the agency ought to have allowed the employee to dismiss his charge, that its failure to do so was arbitrary, and that the judge lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to enforce the subpoena sent the pendency of a valid charge.

The Seventh Circuit reverses.  It holds that the subject-matter jurisdiction ruling was spurious: 
“Two provisions of Title VII itself authorize district courts to adjudicate subpoena-enforcement actions filed by
the EEOC. 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-5(f), -8(c). Then there is 28 U.S.C. §1345, which creates subject-matter jurisdiction for any suit filed by the United States or one of its agencies. A district court’s belief that the EEOC should not have investigated or sued does not detract from the fact that it did ask the court to enforce its subpoena. A statute authorizes the court to adjudicate this request. That’s all subject-matter jurisdiction entails.

The court also held that the filing of a valid charge conferred authority on the EEOC to perform the investigation, regardless of the charging-party’s latter-day attempts to withdraw:

“[Withdrawing a charge does not mean that a valid charge was never filed. Watkins does not contend, and the district court did not find, that Jackson’s charge was invalid when filed. All Shell Oil requires is a valid charge. Once one has been filed, the EEOC rather than the employee determines how the investigation proceeds.”


“The problem with the [employer’s] argument is that it allows litigants to achieve their settlement by injuring other, unrepresented persons. . . . That is what Watkins tried to do here by making its settlement contingent on the withdrawal of Jackson’s charge, after the time to file a new charge had expired. For the EEOC had commenced a pattern-or-practice investigation that might lead to relief for many persons in addition to Jackson. The agency and the judiciary are not obliged to abet this strategy by preferring Jackson’s interests over those of other workers. Jackson and Watkins Motor Lines are free to resolve their own dispute but may not compromise the interests of other employees and applicants in the process.”

The action returns to the district court, to allow the judge to consider alternative arguments (regarding overbreadth and undue burden).

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