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Second Circuit Breathes New Life into EEOC’s Lawsuit Against Sterling Jewelry

In a decision issued today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that the EEOC’s sex discrimination case against Sterling Jewelers, Inc. – the largest fine jewelry company in the United States that operates chains including Kay Jewelers and Jared – the Galleria of Jewelry –may go forward.

The EEOC sued Sterling Jewelers alleging it engaged in nationwide sex-based pay and promotion discrimination in violation of Title VII. After discovery, Sterling Jewelers moved for summary judgment, arguing that the EEOC did not satisfy its obligation under Title VII to conduct a pre-suit investigation. The United States District Court for the Western District of New York agreed, holding that the EEOC’s investigation was not sufficient, and dismissed the case.

The EEOC appealed to the Second Circuit who reversed the district court’s decision, holding that Title VII only requires courts to review whether the EEOC conducted an investigation, not the sufficiency of the investigation. Relying a U.S. Supreme Court decision analyzing courts’ power to review the EEOC’s duty to conciliate, the Second Circuit concluded that judicial review of the EEOC’s investigation was narrow and “the EEOC must [only] show that it took steps to determine whether there was a reasonable cause to believe that the allegations in the charge are true.” In this specific case, since the EEOC alleged nationwide discrimination, in order to carry its burden, the EEOC was only required to “show that it undertook to investigate whether there was a basis for alleging such widespread discrimination.” Interestingly, the Second Circuit opined that an affidavit stating as much will generally suffice.

While a cursory reading of the opinion might lead to the sweeping conclusion that the Second Circuit has essentially done away with the pre-suit investigation requirement, the substance of the opinion makes clear that the court is not going so far as to say that the EEOC can perform a haphazard or lackadaisical investigation into allegations and still meet this burden. In fact, the Second Circuit distinguishes the facts of the instant case from cases from other circuits finding the EEOC failed to meet its burden. Instead, the EEOC must still show that it conducted an actual investigation into the allegations, but, reading into the decision, employers may well be wise to focus on the substantive allegations and not expect courts to lightly dismiss claims of Title VII violations on procedural grounds.

The text of the full opinion can be found here

The attorneys at Buckley Christopher & Haff, P.C. are available to assist you if you are facing allegations of Title VII violations.

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