By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Christopher DeGroff, and Matthew J. Gagnon

Seyfarth Synopsis:  On March 10, 2020, the EEOC released information about an internal resolution that may drastically change how high-stakes litigation decisions are made at the EEOC. The resolution reverses some long-standing practices that had delegated much of the authority over the direction of EEOC litigation enforcement activities to the General Counsel of the Commission. Much of that authority will now rest firmly in the hands of the Commissioners themselves.

On March 10, 2020, the EEOC released its Resolution Concerning the Commission’s Authority to Commence or Intervene in Litigation and the Commission’s Interest in Information Concerning Appeals.

The purpose of the resolution appears to be an effort to rein in many of the powers previously held by the EEOC’s General Counsel, and in turn the Regional Attorneys, who historically have wielded considerable discretion over the types of lawsuits that would be filed and the legal positions the EEOC would advance.

The resolution notes that the Commission had originally delegated significant authority to the General Counsel in the EEOC’s National Enforcement Plan of 1995. That delegation was reaffirmed with some slight changes in the Strategic Enforcement Plans that became effective in 2012 and 2017. According to the most recent iteration of the Strategic Enforcement Plan, the General Counsel’s office was given authority to decide to commence or intervene in litigation in all cases except those: (1) that involve a major expenditure of agency resources, which would include many systemic, pattern or practice, or Commissioner charge cases; (2) which present issues in developing areas of law where the Commission has not yet or only recently adopted an official position; (3) that the General Counsel reasonably believes to be appropriate for submission for Commission consideration (e.g., due to the likelihood of public controversy); and (4) which involve recommendations to participate in a case as amicus curiae.

The new resolution makes it clear that it is now the Commissioners, and not the General Counsel, that will make the decisions to commence or intervene in litigation. According to the resolution, the Commission now has exclusive authority over the following:

-Cases involving an allegation of systemic discrimination or a pattern or practice of discrimination;

-Cases expected to involve a major expenditure of agency resources, including staffing and staff time, or expenses associated with extensive discovery or expert witnesses;

-Cases presenting issues on which the Commission has taken a position contrary to precedent in the Circuit in which the case will be filed;

-Cases presenting issues on which the General Counsel proposes to take a position contrary to precedent in the Circuit in which the case will be filed;

-Other cases reasonably believed to be appropriate for Commission approval in the judgment of the General Counsel. This category includes, but is not limited to, cases that implicate areas of the law that are not settled and cases that are likely to generate public controversy;

-All recommendations in favor of Commission participation as amicus curiae;

-A minimum of one litigation recommendation from each District Office each fiscal year, including litigation recommendations based on the above criteria.

Even with respect to those cases that do not raise the issues enumerated above, the new resolution goes on to state that the General Counsel is obligated to communicate about more garden variety cases with the Chair, and at the Chair’s request, shall consult with the Chair to decide whether even those cases should be brought before the Commission for a vote. It is only if the Chair does not advise the General Counsel within five business days – as to whether a particular case must be submitted to the Commission for a vote – that the General Counsel retains authority to proceed with a lawsuit on her own initiative.

The delegation of authority contained in the EEOC’s most recent Strategic Enforcement Plan allowed the General Counsel the authority to re-delegate to Regional Attorneys the authority to commence litigation and, in fact, strongly encouraged such re-delegation of litigation authority. Under the new resolution, that authority is also revoked; instead, it explicitly states that for any cases that are not brought to the Commission for a vote as described above, “the Commission delegates to the General Counsel the authority to determine whether to commence such cases.” (emphasis added).

Finally, in an apparent nod to some of the recent difficulties the agency has had in terms of maintaining a quorum of Commissioners to make critical litigation decisions (see our discussion of this here in previous blog postings), the resolution states that in the event that the Commission loses its quorum, the General Counsel may file only those cases that do not directly implicate the seven categories that are the exclusive authority of the Commission. But even then, that authority ceases when the Commission regains its quorum.

Implications For Employers

For those of us who pay close attention to the goings-on at the EEOC, this is a stunning and dramatic revocation of the General Counsel’s litigation authority. For many years now, we have been struck by the extent to which the General Counsel and the attorneys in the field appeared to exercise broad discretion over the types of cases the EEOC would file, the theories of law that it would pursue, and the litigation tactics that it would employ. Moreover, since the General Counsel was also encouraged to delegate that authority to Regional Attorneys across the country, the result was a sometimes fragmented, district-by-district approaches to EEOC enforcement litigation.

It is no coincidence that this revocation of authority comes just as the EEOC has finally reclaimed its quorum of Commissioners under the leadership of a new chair appointed by the Trump administration. Many employers are likely to greet this development as an indication of a fundamental change in direction and welcome news given some of the litigation and legal positions the EEOC has taken in recent years. To add to that sense of relief, it should be noted that Commissioners’ terms are staggered so that they survive across political administrations. In other words, the Commissioners that the current administration puts in place could continue to influence the direction of the agency even after that administration ends. But as with so many things, what goes around comes around, and, of course, the same will be true if and when a new Administration has a chance to pick its own set of Commissioners.

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