General Tel. Co. of the Northwest, Inc. v. EEOC
Annotate this Case
446 U.S. 318 (1980)
U.S. Supreme Court
General Tel. Co. of the Northwest, Inc. v. EEOC, 446 U.S. 318 (1980)
General Telephone Company of the Northwest, Inc. v.
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Argued March 25, 26, 1980
Decided May 12, 1980
446 U.S. 318
Section 706(a) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 empowers the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) "to prevent any person from engaging in any unlawful practice" as set forth in Title VII. Section 706(f)(1) authorizes the EEOC, after unlawful employment practice charges against a private employer are filed with it and it is unable to secure a conciliation agreement, to bring a civil action against the employer. And § 706(g), in addition to providing for injunctive relief, provides for reinstatement or hiring of aggrieved employees with or without backpay. On the basis of sex discrimination charges filed by four employees of petitioner employer, the EEOC brought suit in Federal District Court under § 706(f)(1), alleging discrimination against female employees in four States and seeking injunctive relief and backpay for the women affected by the challenged practices. The EEOC did not seek class certification pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, and petitioner employer moved to dismiss the class action aspects of the complaint. The District Court denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals, on interlocutory appeal, affirmed.
Held: The EEOC may seek class-wide relief under § 706(f)(1) without being certified as the class representative under Rule 23. Pp. 446 U. S. 323-334.
(a) The language of §§ 706(a),(f)(1), and (g) clearly authorizes the procedure that the EEOC followed in this case. Pp. 446 U. S. 323-325.
(b) This understanding of the statute is supported by the purpose of the 1972 amendments to Title VII of securing more effective enforcement of Title VII by adding § 706(f)(1) to authorize a civil enforcement suit by the EEOC as a supplement to the preexisting private action. Under § 706(f)(1), Congress sought to implement the public interest, as well as to bring about more effective enforcement of private rights. The private action rights under § 706(f)(1) suggest that the EEOC is not merely a proxy for the victims of discrimination, and that the EEOC's enforcement suits should not be considered representative actions subject to Rule 23. When the EEOC acts, albeit at the behest of and for the benefit of specific individuals, it acts also to vindicate the public interest in preventing employment discrimination. Pp. 446 U. S. 325-326.
(c) Prior to 1972, the only civil actions authorized other than private lawsuits were actions by the Attorney General upon reasonable cause to suspect "a pattern or practice" of discrimination, and such actions were brought in the name of the United States -- not as a representative of the persons aggrieved -- without obtaining certification under Rule 23, even though specific relief was awarded to individuals not parties to the suit. The 1972 amendments transferred the Attorney General's authority to bring "pattern or practice" suits to the EEOC, and Congress intended the EEOC to proceed in the same manner. Pp. 446 U. S. 327-329.
(d) Forcing EEOC civil actions into the Rule 23 model would, in many cases, distort the Rule as it is commonly interpreted, and, in others, foreclose enforcement actions not satisfying prevailing Rule 23 standards as to numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation, but seemingly authorized by § 706(f)(1). The undesirability of doing either supports the conclusion that the procedural requirements of the Rule do not apply. Pp. 446 U. S. 329-331.
(e) Departure from the statutory design is not warranted on the theory that Rule 23 should be invoked in order to secure a judgment in the EEOC's suit that will be binding upon all individuals with similar grievances in the class or subclasses that might be certified. It would not be consistent with the remedial purpose of the statutes to bind all "class" members with discrimination grievances against an employer by the relief obtained under an EEOC judgment or settlement against the employer, especially in view of the possible differences between the public and private interests involved. However, the courts are not powerless to prevent undue hardship to the defendant, and, where the EEOC has prevailed in its action, the court may reasonably require any individual who claims under its judgment to relinquish his right to bring a separate private action. Pp. 446 U. S. 332-333.
599 F.2d 322, affirmed.
WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., and POWELL, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., filed a dissenting statement, post, p. 446 U. S. 334.