Equal Employment Opportunity Act

The Equal Employment Opportunity Act has shaped America’s employment laws for over a half a century. It pays to understand the characteristics of this landmark legislation, especially if you feel you it might have direct bearing on your work situation.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) enforces federal laws that prohibit discrimination in the workplace. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave birth to the EEOC, though it had many other aspects besides employment. The section of the Civil Rights Act pertaining to equal employment is referred to as Title VII. It prohibits job discrimination based on race, national origin, color, sex, and religion. It also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who use the law to exercise their rights.

The EEOC today has the duty of enforcing anti-discrimination laws. It also oversees and coordinates all equal opportunity regulations at the federal level.

The EEOC owes its existence to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. President John F. Kennedy sent the comprehensive civil rights legislation to Congress in the summer of 1963. It was at the peak of civil rights controversy and conflict in the U.S.. Kennedy challenged Congress to “make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law.” It was an uphill battle. Deliberations still continued in Congress after JFK’s assassination in November 1963. His successor – Lyndon B. Johnson – continued the battle, proclaiming that “no eulogy could more eloquently honor Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”

After further battles and numerous compromises, Johnson finally signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. However, the battles continued.

The EEOC had been founded as part of the Civil Rights Act. However, at first, it lacked any enforcement authority. Congress had only authorized it to “investigate claims of discrimination.” The EEOC was expected to forward their findings to the Justice Department for possible enforcement. This prevented the EEOC from achieving the goals some had foreseen. However, it was great step in the right direction.

The EEOC started with a full and complete study of the nature and extent of discrimination in employment. This was the first study of its kind. The EEOC also assisted individual cases with “friend of the court” briefs interpreting the new law – even though the EEOC couldn’t directly prosecute cases.

Finally, in 1972, President Richard Nixon signed the Equal Employment Opportunity act. This gave the EEOC the teeth it had been lacking before. The body was finally able to directly prosecute cases to redress claims of discrimination. In the years that followed, the EEOC would greatly influence judicial interpretation of the Civil Rights Act. In fact, following the passage of the Equal Opportunity Act, the EEOC helped define the very term “discrimination.” It had been left out of the original 1964 legislation.

The EEOC wasted no time. In 1973, advocates within the EEOC pushed for litigation that led to a landmark Supreme Court decision affecting discrimination in employment cases going forward. This was McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). By way of that decision, the Supreme Court decided a plaintiff could prove a case of discrimination under Title VII by demonstrating four distinct factors. The Court stated that if a plaintiff’s case showed discrimination by the four factors listed, the employer had to respond with a legitimate explanation for not hiring the plaintiff. If the employer could not – or would not – show their rationale for not hiring the plaintiff, they would be found guilty of discrimination in the workplace.

Finally, there was a true rubric in place for determining workplace discrimination. In the years since, the EEOC and lower courts have applied the same standards to determine cases of discrimination.

Backing Legislation

The EEOC depends on not one, but several different pieces of legislation to carry out its mission.

  • The initial US Federal Law was the Civil Rights Act of 1883. This law forbade favoritism in federal hiring and advancement, and ended what had become known as the “spoils system.
  • The EEOC came into being through Title VII of the original Civil Rights Act. At its basis, this prohibits employers from discriminating for reasons of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin.
  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was an amendment to the pre-existing Fair Labor Standards Act. It prohibits disparity in pay based on sex.
  • The Age Discrimination Act of 1967 protects workers age 40 and older against discrimination.
  • Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities working within the federal government.
  • Among other provisions, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 provides for monetary damages against employers found guilty of discrimination.
  • Roosevelt’s Executive Order 0948 of 1940 prohibited discrimination based on race, creed, or color within federal agencies.
  • Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925 required steps be taken to eliminate employment discrimination in federal agencies.
  • The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 prohibited employers from refusing to hire a pregnant woman because of her pregnancy, a pregnancy-related condition.

These laws and directives, both individually and in concert, provide the legal basis of what the EEOC does to help ensure fairness in the workplace.

State and local laws against discrimination are in some cases are more strict than federal law. State and local laws that are more strict and expansive than federal law apply in place of the federal laws.

For instance: 12 states and the District of Columbia have policies prohibiting both sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. Some states have enacted laws prohibiting marital/familial status discrimination. These are local laws rather than federal, but the EEOC keeps the in mind when investigating cases of discrimination.

It’s important for employers to be aware of these laws and regulations, whether state or federal.

How the EEOC Does What It Does

The functions of the EEOC are divided into investigating and, when necessary, prosecuting cases involving workplace discrimination. The suits it brings are civil, meaning defendants found guilty are subject to monetary and other penalties, though not jail time.

Most often, charges of discrimination are brought by private citizens who have reason to believe their employers (or potential employers) have discriminated against them. The EEOC will investigate those accusations. They will share findings based on the outcome of their investigations. In some – but by no means all – cases, the EEOC will bring court charges against the discriminating employers.

However, in most cases, enforcement will be left to the individual complainant. That means with the backing of the EEOC’s findings, the individual can engage counsel and take the discriminating employer to court, pressing for both losses and punitive damages.

A finding of discrimination at the EEOC doesn’t automatically equate to a payday for the plaintiff. Any individual who wants to bring a case based on Title VII or the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) needs to show they have exhausted all alternatives before taking the matter to court. That means they must first report the case to the EEOC, await their findings, and follow the EEOC’s non-litigation recommendations (if any) before bringing their own case.

However, in some cases, the burden of bringing a case as an individual is too onerous, and a recent Supreme Court decision has made group actions more difficult.

Case in Point: Wal-Mart v. Dukes

Under Title VII and the other civil-rights laws and legal precedents, employees have long been able to come together as a group to enforce their rights to a discrimination-free workplace.

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes was a 2011 Supreme Court Case that threw a curveball to any group seeking redress under US federal civil rights laws. A deeply-divided Court voted 5-4 to impose obstacles to rights to bring class action suits under civil rights laws.

In Wal-Mart v. Dukes, a group of female Wal-Mart employees sued for sexual discrimination in pay and advancement. Wal-Mart is America’s largest private employer.

The workers stated Wal-Mart delegated decisions about pay and promotions to local managers while providing neither guidance nor validation.

Despite evidence indicating discrimination in hiring and advancement at Wal-Mart, the Supreme Court decided the employees did not have enough in common to constitute a class.

Group actions reduce the likelihood of retaliation on the part of the employer. The Supreme Court itself has recognized the difficulties individuals face in bringing discrimination cases against employers. An individual is likely to be singled out for retribution, which can take insidious forms that would be very difficult to counter or prosecute.

It’s true that many employees can only stand up for rights against discrimination if they can do so as part of a group.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Restoration Act of 2016 provides a new avenue for group actions. The bill provides an alternate path for collective actions challenging discriminatory employment violating Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, 42 U.S.C § 1981, or the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. It sidesteps the legal definition of “class” by allowing individuals to bring legal action against employers on their own behalf, or that of other employees.

Many hold that the Supreme Court’s decision gave Wal-Mart too much credit for a boilerplate non-discrimination policy with no underlying mechanism for efficient action. “Wal-Mart’s announced policy forbids sex discrimination” was the limit of Wal-Mart’s commitment against discrimination. The decision has left a misunderstanding among some employers that merely maintaining any nondiscrimination policy at all protects them from liability. The Equal Employment Opportunity Restoration Act of 2016 would restore courts’ discretion to counter cases of discrimination.

International Influences

Although the EEOC is an agency of the U.S. Federal Government, it’s important to understand the global situation in terms of workplace discrimination. Oftentimes, international concepts (and precepts) come to form American jurisprudence and legislation.

The European Union Directive 2000/78/EC is an EU law intended to combat discrimination in the workplace. And in fact, Article 13 of the EC Treaty calls upon the Community to fight discrimination based on religion or belief, sex, race or ethnic origin, age, disability, or sexual orientation.

The EU Directive concerns:

  • Conditions for access to employment, including selection criteria and promotion
  • Access to all types of vocational training
  • Employment and working conditions
  • Pay and dismissals
  • Membership of, and involvement in an organization of workers or employers

Canada's Employment Equity Act of 1995 helped ensure federally-regulated employers provide equal opportunities to four protected groups: women, Aboriginal peoples, people with disabilities, and members of visible minorities. The Act requires in-scope employers to implement an equity plan for the hiring, training, retention, and promotion of employees in designated groups.

The Limits of the EEOC

Over its more than half a century in existence, the EEOC has at times been cast in the light of miracle-worker. That’s not the case. This is the world of law, and law has limitations

Neither Title VII nor the EEOC can promise a job or advancement. The purpose of the law and the EEOC’s enforcement of it is to ensure fairness in hiring and employment practices. A victorious court case requires airtight evidence of a pattern of discriminatory behavior on the part of the plaintiff. In many cases, it can be argued that the discrimination isn’t based on any protected factor, but is an honest business decision based on the plaintiff’s real capabilities as a worker, suitability for employment, etc. It’s important to remember that not all refusals to hire (or decisions to fire) are based on race, religion, age, sex, or national origin.

If you think you’ve been discriminated against and would like to know your options, possibly involving a report to the EEOC and an ensuing civil case, consider posting your legal need on UpCounsel. UpCounsel has virtual army of highly-trained legal professionals who know employment law inside and out, including Title VII. UpCounsel contributors represent the top 5 percent of legal professionals throughout the country and have represented cases involving Google, IBM, and the U.S. federal government. They can help you decide how best to proceed as you seek fairness and redress in your work situation.