Second Circuit Decision Resuscitates EEOC’s Gender Discrimination Suit against Sterling Jewelers

Lucie Rivière and Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On September 9, 2015, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that the District Court erred in its evaluation of the adequacy of an EEOC investigation, in the matter of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) v. Sterling Jewelers Inc. (“Sterling”).  The Court of Appeals found that the District Court improperly reviewed the adequacy of the EEOC investigation rather than whether there was an investigation.

On September 23, 2008, the EEOC filed suit in the Western District of New York alleging that Sterling engaged in sex-based pay and promotion discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”).  Between 2005 and 2007, the EEOC investigated nineteen complaints of discrimination in nine states against Sterling.

At the close of discovery, Sterling moved for summary judgment, arguing that the EEOC had not satisfied its statutory obligation to conduct a pre-suit investigation.  The magistrate judge agreed, issuing a report and recommendation in which he determined that “there was no evidence that [the EEOC] investigated a nationwide class” and recommended that Sterling’s motion be granted.  The District Court adopted the magistrate’s recommendation and granted summary judgment for Sterling.  The EEOC appealed the decision to the Second Circuit.

On appeal, the EEOC argued that the magistrate judge improperly evaluated the sufficiency of the EEOC’s investigation instead of evaluating whether there was an investigation.  Under Title VII, courts may review whether the EEOC conducted an investigation, but not the sufficiency of such an investigation.  Following the Sixth and Eighth Circuits (EEOC v. Keco Indus., Inc., 748 F.2d 1097, 1100 (6th Cir. 1984) and EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc., 679 F.3d 657, 674 (8th Cir. 2012), the Second Circuit held that a district court’s ability to review the EEOC’s pre-suit investigation is extremely narrow. To prove that the EEOC has fulfilled its pre-suit investigative obligation, the EEOC only must show that it took steps to determine whether there was reasonable cause to believe that the allegations in the charge are true. An affidavit from the EEOC, outlining the steps taken to investigate the charges, is sufficient.  “For a court to second guess the choices made by the EEOC in conducting an investigation is not to enforce the law Congress wrote, but to impose extra procedural requirements.  Such judicial review extends too far,” held the Second Circuit.  Circuit Judge John Walker added, “Extensive judicial review of this sort would expend scarce resources and would delay and divert EEOC enforcement actions from eliminating discrimination in the workplace.”

If you believe your employer has discriminated against you, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.