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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co.

May 18, 1984

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, APPELLANT,
v.
THE GREAT ATLANTIC & PACIFIC TEA COMPANY, APPELLEE



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Gibbons and Sloviter, Circuit Judges, and Mencer, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Gibbons

Opinion OF THE COURT

GIBBONS, Circuit Judge.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) appeals from a summary judgment in favor of the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, Inc. (A & P). EEOC filed the instant complaint on December 31, 1981, charging A & P and certain labor organizations with which A & P had collective bargaining relationships with race and sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2, 2000e-3 (1976). On May 18, 1983, the district court held that the complaint, which seeks injunctive relief and back pay, must be dismissed on the ground of laches. This appeal represents this court's first occasion to consider the application of the equitable doctrine of laches to suits by the EEOC.*fn1 We hold that the district court erred in applying the doctrine in this case. Accordingly, we will reverse the judgment of the district court and remand for further proceedings.

I.

The Statutory Scheme

Since 1972 the EEOC has been authorized to bring suits to enforce Title VII.*fn2 Before such a suit is filed, however, the EEOC must follow a series of prescribed administrative steps. The administrative process begins with the filing of a charge. Charges may be filed by aggrieved individuals and by members of the Commission. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(b) (1976). After a proper and timely charge has been filed, the EEOC must within ten days notify the respondent of the charge. Id. Neither an individual charge nor a Commissioner's charge need be supported by reasonable cause at the time of its filing. EEOC v. Shell Oil Co., 466 U.S. 54, 80 L. Ed. 2d 41, 104 S. Ct. 1621, 52 U.S.L.W. 4399, 4405 (1984). An employer notified of a charge is obligated by regulation to preserve relevant personnel records until the charge's final disposition. Id. 52 U.S.L.W. at 4405-06 & n.35; 29 C.F.R. § 1602.14 (1983).

After serving notice of the charge on the respondent, the Commission must commence an investigation. This investigation culminates in a "reasonable cause" determination. If it determines that there is not reasonable cause to believe that the charge is true, the EEOC must dismiss the charge and notify the charging party and the respondent. If, however, the Commission determines "after such investigation that there is reasonable cause to believe that the charge is true, [then it] shall endeavor to eliminate any such alleged unlawful employment practice by informal methods of conference, conciliation and persuasion." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(b) (1976). Only after the EEOC determines that it has been unable to secure from a respondent a satisfactory conciliation agreement may it bring a civil action. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(1) (1976).

The Act imposes no maximum time limitation on these three steps in the administrative process: (1) the filing of a charge; (2) the determination of reasonable cause; and (3) the filing of a complaint.*fn3 See Occidental Life Ins. Co. v. EEOC, 432 U.S. 355, 360, 53 L. Ed. 2d 402, 97 S. Ct. 2447 (1977). The absence of any time limitation governing the second stage of the administrative process -- the "reasonable cause" determination -- is consistent with Congress' understanding that the investigation of employment discrimination charges often requires complex and time-consuming statistical analyses*fn4 and that the Commission has limited resources and substantial administrative responsibilities.*fn5 The absence of any maximum time limitation on the third stage -- the filing of a complaint -- is consistent with the emphasis in the statute on conciliation. Courts considering the question have assumed that an agency effort at conciliation is a prerequisite to suit.*fn6 Congress attached such significance to conciliation as a preferred resolution of Title VII claims that it has expressly authorized stays of suits for up to sixty days for "further efforts of the Commission to obtain voluntary compliance." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(1) (1976). The agency has implemented that provision by provided by regulation that its General Counsel may negotiate conciliation agreements during any such stay. 29 C.F.R. § 1601.24(b) (1983).*fn7

II.

A. The Charges Against A & P

On October 17, 1874, EEOC Commissioner John Powell filed a Commissioner's charge against A & P. The Commission, in turn, filed the charge with the EEOC's Philadelphia Regional Office on October 23, 1974. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(d) (1976),*fn8 the Philadelphia Office referred the Commissioner's charge to the appropriate state and local agencies. Those agencies waived jurisdiction on November 18. On December 6, 1974, the EEOC served notice of the charge on A & P. That notice obliged A & P to preserve all relevant personnel records. 29 C.F.R. § 1602.14 (1983).

Prior to the filing of the Commissioner's charge, four individual charges alleging employment discrimination by A & P had been filed with the EEOC. On June 23, 1972, Theodore Alexander alleged that he had been denied promotions to managerial positions, assigned to stores in predominately black areas, and denied overtime on account of his race. On October 31, 1973, Henry LeSesane alleged that he had been required to take a polygraph examination following a store robbery and had twice been demoted because of his race. LeSesane supplemented his original charge in August of 1974, alleging that he had been denied a promotion to assistant manager on account of race. In November of 1973, Bernie Holland charged that he had been denied a transfer from a produce to a grocery department because of his race. When he was discharged, Holland added an allegation of discriminatory discharge. Finally, in March of 1974 Katie Lomax charged that A & P had repeatedly refused to permit her to apply for employment on grounds of race and sex, and that when she was hired she was denied access to higher-paying jobs reserved for men.

The Commissioner's October 17, 1974 charge differed significantly from these four individual charges. First, the Commissioner's charge named as respondents not only A & P, but fourteen unions having collective bargaining agreements with the company. Second, the charge was made not on behalf of the four named individuals, but

on behalf of an aggrieved class with a membership which includes, but is not limited to, all persons who have been and who continue to be or might be adversely affected by the unlawful employment practices [alleged therein].

App. at 242. Third, the Commissioner's charge was far more extensive than any of the four individual charges. The charge alleged a pattern or practice of discriminatory employment practices against blacks and females

with respect to hiring, layoff, recall, wages, discharge, promotions, seniority, job classifications, training, exclusion, union representation, benefits, segregated facilities, and other terms and conditions of employment. . . .

App. at 239-40. Moreover, the charge particularized that the practices complained of included but were not limited to:

1. Refusing and failing to recruit and hire blacks and females for positions at all levels of employment at respondent's facilities on an equal basis as white males because of their race, color and sex.

2. Following a policy or practice of hiring and assigning its female employees on the basis of sex with female employees being hired for and assigned to the less desirable and generally lower paying jobs with the least opportunity for advancement.

3. Following a policy and practice of denying blacks assignments into more desirable and generally higher paying jobs with the greatest opportunity for advancement on an equal basis as whites because of their race.

4. Refusing and failing to provide benefits to female employees on the same basis as to male employees because of their sex.

5. Refusing and failing to hire and/or promote blacks and females into supervisory positions at its divisional headquarters on an equal basis as white males.

6. Engaging in additional acts and practices which discriminate against blacks and female persons with respect to their compensation, terms and conditions, and privileges of employment and which limit, segregate and classify their black and female employees in ways which deprive or tend to deprive them of employment opportunities or adversely affect their status as employees because of their race, color or sex. These acts and practices include, but are not limited to:

a. Failing and refusing to transfer, assign or promote black and female persons on the same basis as white males;

b. Failing to provide opportunities for apprenticeship, training and advancement to black and female applicants for employment and employees equal to those opportunities provided to white male applicants for employment and employees;

c. Failing to provide opportunities for advancement into supervisory positions to black and female employees equal to those opportunities provided to white male employees; and

d. Failing to take reasonable and appropriate action to correct the present effects of their past discrimination.

App. at 240-41.

In addition to these charges against A & P, the Commissioner's Charge alleged discrimination ...


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