432 U.S. 355 (1977), 76-99, Occidental Life Insurance Company of California

Docket Nº:No. 76-99
Citation:432 U.S. 355, 97 S.Ct. 2447, 53 L.Ed.2d 402
Party Name:Occidental Life Insurance Company of California
Case Date:June 20, 1977
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 355

432 U.S. 355 (1977)

97 S.Ct. 2447, 53 L.Ed.2d 402

Occidental Life Insurance Company of California

No. 76-99

United States Supreme Court

June 20, 1977

v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Argued April 20, 1977

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

About three years after an employee of petitioner company had first complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that petitioner had discriminated against her because of her sex, and five months after conciliation efforts by the EEOC had failed, the EEOC brought this enforcement action in the District Court for the Central District of California. The court granted petitioner's motion for summary judgment on the ground that the enforcement action was time-barred by § 706(f)(1) of the Act, since the action had not been brought within 180 days of either the formal filing of the charge with the EEOC or the effective date of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972. Alternatively, the court held that the action was subject to and barred by the California one-year statute of limitations. The Court of Appeals reversed. Section 706(f)(1) provides in relevant part:

If a charge filed with the Commission . . . is dismissed by the Commission, or within one hundred and eighty days from the filing of such charge or the expiration of any period of reference [from a state agency], whichever is later, the Commission has not filed a civil action under this section . . or the Commission has not entered into a conciliation agreement to which the person aggrieved is a party, the Commission . . . shall so notify the person aggrieved and within ninety days after the giving of such notice a civil action may be brought against the respondent named in the charge (A) by the person claiming to be aggrieved or (B) if such charge was filed by a member of the Commission, by any person whom the charge alleges was aggrieved by the alleged unlawful employment practice.

Held:

1. Section 706(f)(1) imposes no limitation upon the EEOC's power to file suit in federal court. [97 S.Ct. 2448] The provision's language and legislative history show that it was intended to enable an aggrieved person unwilling to await the conclusion of extended EEOC proceedings to institute a private lawsuit 180 days after a charge has been filed. Pp. 358-366.

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2. EEOC enforcement actions are not subject to state statutes of limitations. Pp. 366-372.

(a) Though a congressional intent to apply a local limitations period has been inferred in instances where a federal statute creating a cause of action fails to specify such a period, state limitations periods will not be borrowed if their application would not comport with the federal statute's underlying policies. P. 367.

(b) Under the procedural structure created by amendments to the Act in 1972, when EEOC was created and given enforcement powers in lieu of the previous voluntary compliance scheme, EEC does not function as a vehicle for conducting litigation on behalf of private parties but is charged with investigating employment discrimination claims and settling them by informal conciliation if possible, and it is required to refrain from suing until it has discharged its administrative responsibilities. Application of a State's limitation period would not thus further the federal policy, and the one-year California bar applied by the District Court could under some circumstances conflict with that policy. Pp. 367-369.

(c) Congress was well aware of the enormous backlog of EEOC cases, but the concern expressed for the fair operation of the Act focused on the filing of the initial charge with the EEOC, rather than on later limitations on EEOC's power to sue. Pp. 369-372.

3. The courts do not lack discretionary remedial power if, despite procedural protections accorded a Title VII defendant under the Act, EEOC delay in bringing suit, after conciliation efforts have failed, significantly handicaps the defense. See Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody, 422 U.S. 405, 424-425. Pp. 372-373.

535 F.2d 533, affirmed.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, J., filed an opinion dissenting in part, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 373.

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STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1972, Congress amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 so as to empower the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to bring suit in a federal district court against a private employer alleged to have violated the Act. The sole question presented by this case is what time limitation, if any, is imposed on the EEOC's power to bring such a suit.

I

On December 27, 1970, an employee of the petitioner Occidental Life Insurance Co. filed a charge with the EEOC claiming that the company had discriminated against her because of her sex.1 After a fruitless referral to the appropriate state agency, the charge was formally filed with the EEOC on March 9, 1971,2 and subsequently served on the company. After investigation, the EEOC served proposed findings of fact on the company on February 25, 1972, to which the company in due course filed exceptions. Conciliation discussions between the EEOC and the company began in the summer of 1972. These discussions continued sporadically into 1973, but, on September 13 of that year, the EEOC determined that conciliation efforts had failed, and so

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notified the company and the original complainant. The latter requested that the case be referred to the General Counsel of the EEOC to bring an enforcement action. On February 22, 1974, approximately three years and two months after the complainant first communicated with the EEOC and five months after conciliation efforts had failed, the EEOC brought this enforcement action in a Federal District Court.

The District Court granted the company's motion for summary judgment on the ground that the law requires that an enforcement action be brought within 180 days of the filing of a charge with the EEOC.3 Alternatively, the court held that the action was subject to the most appropriate state limitations statute, and was therefore barred by the one-year limitation provision of Cal.Code Civ.Proc.Ann. § 340(3) (West Supp. 1977).4 The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the federal law does not impose a 180-day limitation on the EEOC's authority to sue, and that the action is not governed by any state statute of limitations. 535 F.2d 533.

We granted certiorari, 429 U.S. 1022, to consider an important and recurring question regarding Title VII.

II

As enacted in 1964, Title VII limited the EEOC's function to investigation of employment discrimination charges and informal methods of conciliation and persuasion.5 The failure

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of conciliation efforts terminated the involvement of the EEOC. Enforcement [97 S.Ct. 2451] could then be achieved, if at all, only if the charging party, or other person aggrieved by the allegedly unlawful practice, initiated a private suit within 30 days after EEOC notification that conciliation had not been successful.6

In the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972,7 Congress established an integrated, multi-step enforcement procedure culminating in the EEOC's authority to bring a civil action in a federal court. That procedure begins when a charge is filed with the EEOC alleging that an employer has engaged in an unlawful employment practice. A charge must be filed within 180 days after the occurrence of the allegedly unlawful practice, and the EEOC is directed to serve notice of the charge on the employer within 10 days of filing.8 The EEOC is then required to investigate the charge and determine whether there is reasonable cause to believe that it is true. This determination is to be made "as promptly as possible and, so far as practicable, not later than one hundred and twenty days from the filing of the charge."9 If the EEOC finds that there is reasonable cause, it "shall endeavor to eliminate any such alleged unlawful employment practice by informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion."10 When

the Commission [is] unable to secure . . . a

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conciliation agreement acceptable to the Commission, the Commission may bring a civil action against any respondent not a government, governmental agency, or political subdivision named in the charge.11

The 1972 Act expressly imposes only one temporal restriction on the EEOC's authority to embark upon the final stage of enforcement -- the bringing of a civil suit in a federal district court: under § 706(f)(1), the EEOC may not invoke the judicial power to compel compliance with Title VII until at least 30 days after a charge has been filed. But neither § 706(f) nor any other section of the Act explicitly requires the EEOC to conclude its conciliation efforts and bring an enforcement suit within any maximum period of time.

The language of the Act upon which the District Court relied in finding a limitation that bars the bringing of a lawsuit by the EEOC more than 180 days after a timely charge has been filed with it is found in § 706(f)(1), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(1) (1970 ed., Supp. V), which provides in relevant part:

If a charge filed with the Commission . . . is dismissed by the Commission, or within one hundred and eighty days from the filing of such charge or the expiration of any period of reference [from a state agency], whichever is later, the Commission has not filed a civil action under this section . . . or the Commission has not entered into a conciliation agreement to which the person aggrieved is a party, the Commission . . . shall so notify the person aggrieved and within ninety days after the giving of such notice a civil action may be...

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